Asbestos Profile: Belgium 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Throughout the 20th century, Belgium was at the center of Europe's asbestos industry [Conference: Europe’s Asbestos Catastrophe] [Europe’s Asbestos Ground Zero].

For decades, Belgian asbestos stakeholders had collaborated with their counterparts in Switzerland to create a climate in which sales of asbestos-cement products could flourish around the world using a variety of measures including the establishment in 1929 of a cartel to: divide global markets, set prices, implement restrictive practices and control the asbestos dialogue [Eternit and the SAIAC Cartel].1

In 1970, the Benelux Asbestos Information Committee was set up at the Eternit Belgium headquarters with members from Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The Asbestos International Association – a trade association dedicated to promoting the interests of the asbestos industry – was also established in Belgium [The Asbestos War].

As can be evinced from the activities described above, Eternit-Belgium worked assiduously to promote the use of their products at home and abroad. It was not a coincidence that in the 1960s and 1970s, Belgium and Luxembourg had the world's highest rates for per capita asbestos consumption. In 2020, asbestos contamination of Belgium’s built environment and infrastructure remains an ongoing hazard as detailed in multiple news articles about asbestos in schools, government buildings, railways, phone booths and the Belgian countryside [IBAS News Archive: Belgium].

The price paid by ordinary people for the profits of the Belgian asbestos industry went unacknowledged for decades. In asbestos company towns like Kapelle-op-den-Bos, Tisselt, and Harmigies the livelihoods of huge swaths of the population were reliant on just one company: Eternit [Belgium – At the Heart of Europe's Asbestos Trade]. Loyalty to Eternit in the company towns created a kind of “omerta,” which prevented the injured or family members from speaking out about local asbestos epidemics [Conference: Europe’s Asbestos Catastrophe].

The mobilization of Belgian asbestos victims – spearheaded by the families of two of the asbestos deceased – brought new voices to the national asbestos debate and exposed the inequity experienced by asbestos victims in a country with a legal system that had, till fairly recently, prevented lawsuits being brought [Belgian Family Wins Historic Court Case Against Eternit] [Justice for Françoise?] [Asbestos Victory in Belgium] [Interim Report: EU Asbestos Action] [Asbestos Victims Honored in Belgium].

Campaigning by the Belgian Asbestos Victims’ Association – L’association Belge des Victimes de l’Amiante (ABEVA) – was instrumental in effecting changes in national policy – e.g. setting up an asbestos compensation fund – and holding polluting companies to account for environmental contamination caused by asbestos manufacturing [Belgian Asbestos Fund] [The New Belgian Asbestos Fund] [Eternit Ordered to Pay for Belgian Clean-up].

In the absence of government statistics documenting the fall-out from asbestos processing and consumption, it was left to the victims to collect data on the incidence of asbestos-related disease and mortality [Belgium’s Asbestos Killing Fields] [Who is at Risk from Toxic Exposures?]

May 2020


1The fact that courts in Italy held the head of the Belgian Eternit Group Baron Jean-Louis de Cartier de Marchienne equally culpable with the Swiss multimillionaire Stephen Schmidheiny for asbestos-related deaths at Italian Eternit factories is indicative of the closeness of the working relationship which existed [Postscript to the Great Asbestos Trial].



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