Casale Monferrato is a small provincial town in the province of Alessandria, Piedmont, which has prided itself on being the capital of Monferrato and is proud of the fact.
But Casale Monferrato has not only been the historical capital since the early decades of the fifteenth century, with the Paleologi and Gonzaga families. Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was also the economic capital, enjoying a geographical position at the centre of the region in relation to Turin, Milan and Genoa. It had its own industrial centre, which in Piedmont was second only to Turin itself. In particular, it was the capital of the cement, printing machinery and refrigeration industries.
Among the most important companies was Eternit, which produced building products made from a mixture of water, cement and asbestos. The long-lasting asbestos story had a profound impact, for better and worse, on the community of Casale, which continues to bear the signs of its existence today.
Eternit operated in Casale Monferrato for eighty years: the construction of the plant, on the outskirts but close to the city and its historic centre (one kilometre from the cathedral), began in 1906 and production started in 1907. In 1901, an Austrian, Ludwig Hatschek, patented an extraordinary material: strong, fireproof and relatively inexpensive, ideal for making roofing sheets and roofs. It was called ‘eternit’ to indicate its strength and durability. Engineer Adolfo Mazza bought the patent to use it in Italy and built the first plant in Casale, given the proximity to numerous cement factories. While asbestos is the raw material that characterises ‘eternit’, cement and water are indispensable for making the product. Hatschek’s patent was also bought by other industrialists in Europe. In 1911 there was a further significant step: Mazza invented and patented machines to produce not only sheets for roofs but also high-pressure pipes, used in thousands of kilometres of aqueducts. It was a success for Italian Eternit: the biggest producers in the world paid to use Mazza’s patent.
Five thousand workers
This is how many workers were employed at the Casale plant over the eight decades of activity. Five thousand workers means five thousand families, so no less than fifteen to twenty thousand people directly linked to Eternit, plus the varied associated industries, which are difficult to quantify. For the town this signified growth, and for the community greater prosperity; people even sought recommendations to get a job there, one that was secure and offered a better salary to plan the purchase of a house, take holidays and, above all, have their children study through to university, assuring them a better future. In some periods, there were more than two thousand employees on the payroll at any one time, divided into various shifts on a continuous cycle, day and night. Casale Monferrato was therefore Eternit’s factory town, as Turin was for Fiat, Ivrea for Olivetti and Alessandria for Borsalino.
And then came 1964
At the World Conference organised by the New York Academy of Sciences in 1964, scientist Irvin Selikoff and other researchers sounded the alarm: asbestos causes a malignant cancer called ‘mesothelioma’. In fact, this was already known at least twenty years earlier. In 1943, the major asbestos industrialists had commissioned American researchers to carry out a study which showed that 80% of mice that inhaled asbestos became ill within three years. But they decided not to publish the study. Another study carried out in 1946 by Dr Leroy Gardner had the same fate: it was covered up, and only became known in 1991. The same fate befell Dr Gerrit E.H. Schepers’ research in the 1950s. Another scientist, Richard Doll, who in 1954 had conducted an epidemiological study funded by the British asbestos industry, refused to be silenced and published the research in 1955. Chris Wagner and Ian Webster, who carried out epidemiological investigations in South Africa in 1959, did the same. So the awareness of the dangers of the fibre was there. As clear as could be. How could it be prevented from sinking the world’s profitable production of asbestos products? Propaganda was deployed in several directions: minimising and questioning the results of scientific studies, emphasising the indispensable usefulness of “eternit” or, at most, admitting that asbestos fibre is dangerous, but the risk can be overcome if it is “used in a controlled manner”.
The socio-economic context, especially in the early 1970s, was characterised by major crises worldwide. The asbestos sector also took a heavy blow in terms of increases in the prices of raw materials and energy, and the cost of borrowing. In Italy, in addition to the Casale plant, Eternit had factories in Bagnoli (Naples), Siracusa and Rubiera dell’Emilia. The Mazza family left the company and the shares were divided between the Belgian Emsens/De Cartier family, the Swiss Schmidheiny family and, to a lesser extent, the French Cuvelier family. Following a further corporate reorganisation, the Swiss group became the main shareholder from 1973 and, from 1976, Stephan Schmidheiny took over management responsibility. Meanwhile, concerns about the dangers of asbestos fibres were spreading more rapidly than ever before. The European Community and individual governments began to consider measures to contain or ban asbestos.
1987, the first halt to asbestos
The Eternit plant in Casale closed in 1986 when the company filed for bankruptcy. At that time the factory still employed 350 people. In 1987, a French company offered to restart production, promising to take on around 60 of the workers who had been laid off. The mayor at the time, Riccardo Coppo, demanded a guarantee that asbestos would no longer be used, but that alternative materials would be employed instead. There was no such assurance. A hundred local doctors wrote a public letter with a clear appeal: ‘Do not reopen the asbestos factory’. Coppo then issued a courageous ordinance prohibiting the manufacture and use of products containing asbestos in the municipal area. It was a historic act: it was the first city in Italy to ban the use of the mineral, five years before it was banned by national law in 1992.
1988, the town rises up
Too many funeral posters had been put up on the wall outside the Eternit factory following the deaths of workers resulting from asbestos sickness. And many other posters around the city concerned victims who had not worked at the plant: family members of workers or citizens who had never even passed through the factory’s gates. Or who had never even walked past them. They had simply breathed in the widespread ‘malapolvere’ (‘bad dust’). With the support of trade unions and organisations, the families of the victims formed the “Associazione Famiglie Lavoratori Eternit Deceduti” (Afled) in 1988, which later evolved into the “Associazione Famigliari e Vittime Amianto” (Afeva). Romana Blasotti Pavesi was its president: asbestos took away her husband, sister, daughter and two grandchildren. She was supported by two tenacious champions of the cause: Bruno Pesce and Nicola Pondrano. Afeva has been the voice of the community which, despite the deep suffering, has reacted with strength and courage: it has not bowed before the pain of the death toll that still continues, but has become a vital symbol of rebellion, resistance and resilience throughout the world.
35 years of resilience
The battle of Afeva and the institutions that support it has been going on for 35 years, but it must continue, because people are still falling sick and dying of asbestos. The sickness did not stop after the factory closed in 1986: too much dust had already spread everywhere. And mesothelioma is a cancer with a long latency period… 10, 30, 40 years. Today, people who have never handled asbestos for work, but who have come into contact with it unknowingly, simply in ‘environmental’ circumstances, can fall ill. Today mesothelioma kills many ‘children and young people of yesterday’: those in their forties, fifties and sixties, who may have played in sports fields or courtyards levelled with the terrible ‘dust’ (resulting from the waste from the production of pipes), or who lived in houses where that dust was used to insulate the attics. Those who die today are those who, as a child, jogged along the cycle path not far from the factory, or who went to the small beach on the banks of the Po near the discharges from the production site, or who breathed in the fibres that escaped from the factory that sailed through the air to were blown from the lorries on which sacks of raw materials and manufactured products were transported back and forth across the town, without protective sheets.
Three pillars of the battle
Afeva has moved in three directions: clearance, justice and research.
Clearance. Land reclamation work has been carried out (nowhere else in the world has it been so massive) at a cost of 120 million euros, most of which has been allocated by the State to the ‘Site of National Interest’, made up of 48 municipalities, with Casale at the top of the list. Coordination is effected by architect Piercarla Coggiola. All the asbestos roofs on public buildings have been removed, a total of 130,000 square metres, in addition to the removal of 1,200,000 square metres of roofs on private property. In addition, sites contaminated by “dust” and the “little beach” on the Po (6,500 square metres down to a depth of one and a half metres), have been cleared and the latter now restored to its natural condition. In 1995, the municipality bought the abandoned factory from the bankrupt Eternit company: between 2002 and 2006, it cleaned it up, spending between 7 and 8 million euros. All the demolition material was sealed in a huge sarcophagus underground. Above ground, the Eternot Park (i.e. Not Eternit) was built, costing between 4 and 5 million euros, inaugurated on 10 September 2016 by the President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella. It is the symbol of the resilience and rebirth of this community, which reacted not only for itself, but for the world. Today there is an international network of alliances, the so-called ‘multinational of victims’, with branches throughout Europe, Brazil, Canada, the United States, Japan and Australia.
Justice. There is a precise objective: through the State institutions responsible for doing so, it must be officially recognised that the community has suffered a wrong and that someone has committed that wrong. That wrong, an attack on the environment, has generated (and continues to generate) thousands of victims. As early as the 1990s, a trial was held against Eternit executives, but when it reached the Appeals Court, the sentence was overturned by the statute of limitations. Then there was the ‘Eternit Maxi-trial’, held in Turin, against the only Eternit bosses still alive, a Belgian and a Swiss. There were 6,392 civil parties, including citizens, organisations and associations. On 13 February 2012, the verdict was 16 years’ imprisonment for the crime of intentional environmental disaster. In appeal, the sentence was raised to 18 years, but only for the Swiss, because the Belgian had died in the meantime. In 2014, the Appeals Court, while recognising the businessman responsible for the disaster, ruled that the statute of limitations had expired. The Turin Public Prosecutor’s Office opened a new criminal case, the so-called “Eternit Bis”, against the same defendant. The original file was then “unpicked” into three strands: in the two in Turin and Naples, the Swiss defendant has already been convicted of manslaughter, aggravated by “deliberate negligence”. The third case is being heard in the Court of Assizes in Novara, in relation to 392 deaths in Casale: the alleged offence is voluntary manslaughter.
Research. The Piedmont Region has quantified the costs borne by the health system for the treatment necessary for each person who falls ill with mesothelioma: 33,000 euros for the diagnostic and therapeutic process, 25,000 euros for insurance costs and 200,000 euros for losses due to absence from work. It is difficult to count the exact number of asbestos victims in Casale and the surrounding area, because the oldest ones have not been counted. 2,500 citizens killed in Casale is a realistic figure, but by default. Around 50 new cases are diagnosed every year. A tragic trickle. A drama that explodes at the moment of diagnosis, but with a long purgatory caused merely by the fear of falling ill. That’s the way it is in Casale: if you feel a little pain in your back, if you give a little cough, you think: “There we are, now it’s my turn”. Often, fortunately, these are only suspicions. Other times, however, the confirmation is there, inexorable. The absolute and urgent priority is to find a cure for those who fall ill with mesothelioma in Casale and throughout the world (there are still countries where asbestos is not yet banned). In 2014, the Mesothelioma Unit (Ufim) was set up, now known as the ‘Simple Mesothelioma Departmental Structure’, headed by oncologist Federica Grosso, which is attached to the hospitals of Casale Monferrato and Alessandria. It has links with research institutes in Italy and around the world, is part of the European reference network for mesothelioma and adopts, in addition to traditional therapies, the most innovative experimental treatments, thanks to direct participation in clinical trials. For some years now, therapies with a more targeted mechanism of action have been available which have made it possible to extend survival: the number of patients living more than five years has increased; until recently, these cases were anecdotal.
Overcoming this challenge is the greatest hope: true justice will be when it can be announced that the ‘medicine’ to cure the sickness completely has been found. That will be a beautiful day.
Then, we will walk in the Eternot Park that the oncologist Daniela Degiovanni, in a very delicate poem, defined as the “Women’s Hill”, raised in the place that was “The hell where life no longer counted, / of asbestos sacks emptied every day, / or of the wall of dust through which their eyes struggled to see each other”. We will walk among the plants of Davidia involucrata, the “handkerchief tree” whose white flowers evoke handkerchiefs wiping away tears. We will listen to children shouting and playing on swings and slides, we will read on benches, in the shade of cedars and willows, poplars and lime trees, plums and flowering pear trees, inhaling the tart smell of the river.
And we will no longer talk about asbestos. We will write no more about asbestos. Not a single word. Because no more people will be dying of asbestos.