Mention the Piedmont region of Italy and most people think of a glamorous vacation destination with picturesque villages and castles framed by the Alps. But behind the tourist façade, it is an asbestos-infested valley of the shadow of death.
More than 2,000 people have died from mesothelioma just in Casale Monferrato, a town that has been around since the days of the ancient Roman Empire. By the dawn of the 20th century, it became known as a cement producing capital because of a factory built there in 1906 by Eternit, a company based in neighboring Switzerland. Founded in 1903, Eternit produced asbestos-containing cement until 1997.
Headed by the Schmidheiny family since 1933, the company flourished during the post World War II rebuilding boom throughout Europe. Besides Italy, Eternit also had factories in the Netherlands, France and Brazil. But amid a growing scandal about asbestos, Eternit’s four Italian factories closed in 1986 and the company was sold to an Austrian bank in 2003.
In 2009, following five years of investigation, billionaire former CEO Stephan Schmidheiny , 65, and major shareholder Louis de Cartier Marchienne were accused of criminal neglect . Both men were found guilty in February 2013 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. You can learn more about this important asbestos trial in a free ebook co-edited by my sister Laurie-Kazan Allen and her husband David Allen, asbestos victim advocates in their own right.
Marchienne died at age 91 on May 21, 2013 during the appeal of his sentence. Charges against him were dropped in June. But Schmidheiny’s sentence was increased to 18 years. He is appealing the case to Italy’s highest court.
Now, a group of mesothelioma sufferers and their families in Italy are seeking to have Yale University, an elite American college in New Haven, Connecticut, take back an honorary degree it presented to Schmidheiny in 1996. A New Haven attorney representing the Italian group sent a petition to Yale officials this week. Yale has never revoked an honorary degree and has expressed support for Schmidheiny . Ironically, Schmidheiny’s Yale honors were conferred on him for his environmental activities, which cynically could be seen as an attempt to distance himself from the environmental and human disasters his company created.