Secrecy and Subterfuge in Switzerland 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Last week, events occurred at conferences in Switzerland which emphasize the ongoing effort of the Swiss Eternit Group to avoid its obligations to asbestos victims.1 On Thursday, September 30, 2004, at the IASLC Mesothelioma Workshop in Ermatingen, Dr. Ulrich F. Gruber addressed the subject of Mesothelioma, prospective from the industry during the Epidemiology and Public Health Panel. Neither in the twenty-three slides he presented, nor in the five page paper he submitted did Gruber mention his connection to the Swiss Eternit Group. In the email list at the back of the collected papers, the only affiliation he lists is BECON. Yet eighteen years ago, Gruber testified before the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. “on behalf of the Swiss Eternit Group.” His continuing links to the Swiss Eternit Group were confirmed by other delegates in Ermatingen.

 Dr. U. F. Gruber speaking at the Mesothelioma Workshop

Gruber's paper reads like a liturgy of excuses for the asbestos industry; typical statements include the following (the italics have been inserted):

  • “Were scientists forced to inform entrepreneurs and engineers about the dangers of asbestos? Or are entrepreneurs asked to read original medical publications, are they in a position to understand them?”

  • “Are specialists of internal medicine and thoracic surgeons forced to read the British Journal of Industrial Medicine, where Wagner published his first report on mesothelioma?”

  • “How much time may medical doctors use in order to inform the rest of the world?”

  • “Do the critics of the asbestos industry realise, that there weren't any good alternatives for asbestos fibres at the time the reports on the adverse effects of asbestos appeared?”

  • “Tobacco abuse by most workers, the prevalence of tuberculosis, the extremely long latency periods of asbestos-related diseases and the lack of rapid internet-communication up to the 1990ies (sic) were important factors responsible for the fact that it took a long time until large parts of the asbestos industry stopped the use of asbestos and found reliable alternatives.”

The concept of “compensation” is entirely lacking from this presentation as is regret for the epidemic of asbestos disease and death created by the company. When challenged about Eternit's obligation to its victims, Gruber replied that injured Eternit workers in Brazil should seek compensation from their government.

On Saturday, October 2, a meeting organised jointly by CAOVA, a Swiss asbestos victims' group, Ban Asbestos France and the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS) took place in Geneva. The highlight of the day was the morning session during which Swiss, French and Italian asbestos victims, family members and campaigners spoke out about their personal experiences. The bravery exhibited by mesothelioma victims who were willing to share their fight for life with the audience was inspirational. Throughout these interventions, an unknown man sitting at the back of the hall took notes. Monsieur X, as we shall call him, was recognized by two of the Ermatingen speakers who were also participating in the Geneva meeting as one of the people who had been accompanying Gruber on Thursday.

 Eternit representative (2nd row in the picture) seeks anonymity at victims' meeting

Laurie Kazan-Allen, Coordinator of IBAS, asked Monsieur X if he was associated with Eternit. He replied: “I work part-time for Eternit and am here on a private information-gathering exercise.” When Francois Iselin, one of the organisers of the meeting, was apprised of the presence and affiliation of Monsieur X, Francois interrupted the meeting and asked Monsieur X if he had anything to say; he declined. In an article which appeared the following morning in the Swiss newspaper Le Matin, Journalist Camille Krafft wrote:

“Differents temoignages d'Italiens et la presence discrete dans la salle hier d'un representant d'Eternit, qui s'est refuse a tout commentaire, demontrent que le scandale entourant cette enterprise suisse autrefois specialisee dans l'amiante est toujours vivant.”

A rough English translation is the following:

“Different Italian witnesses and the discrete presence in the room yesterday of an Eternit representative who refused to comment showed that the current scandal of this Swiss enterprise, formerly associated with asbestos, is still ongoing.”

It is understandable that after avoiding its asbestos liabilities for so long, the Swiss Eternit Group is getting jumpy. Compensation for injuries contracted through hazardous exposures at Eternit's asbestos-cement factory in Casale Monferrato, Italy, and Eternit mines and factories in South Africa are being vigorously pursued.The floodgates are being pried open and Swiss asbestos victims are in the forefront of those eager to expose the misdeeds of this powerful corporation. The confrontations experienced by the Eternit representatives in Ermatingen and Geneva should be regarded as a warning; the day of reckoning grows near.

October 5, 2004


1 In 1985, the Swiss Eternit Group, owned by Stephan Schmiedheiny, was the world's second largest seller of asbestos; its asbestos-cement operations in thirty-two countries had annual sales of $2 billion. Although the Group had divested itself of asbestos holdings by 1990, former Eternit workers who have contracted asbestos-related disease remain unacknowledged and uncompensated in many countries.

From the mid-1970s, Eternit was run by Stephan Schmidheiny who succeeded his Father as Chairman. In 1984, Schmidheiny was worth US$2 billion; in 2002, Forbes magazine estimated his wealth as US$4 billion. Since 2002, Stephan Schmidheiny does not enter into discussions about asbestos nor “does he comment publicly on this subject any more.”



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