Swiss billionaire awaits ruling as asbestos trial ends

A massive class action lawsuit in Italy against a Swiss billionaire and a Belgian baron over 3,000 allegedly asbestos-related illnesses and deaths ended on Monday and a verdict is expected in February.

Stephan Schmidheiny, the former Swiss owner of the Eternit construction firm, and Jean-Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne, a major Belgian shareholder, are being tried in absentia for contaminations from the 1970s.

Prosecutors have requested that the two — Schmidheiny is now 64 years old and De Cartier is 89 — should each be sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Some 6,000 people are seeking damages from the pair in an investigation that has lasted five years but is the product of a 30-year campaign by victims.

Judge Giuseppe Casalbore said the verdict would be delivered from February 13th.

The trial revolved around asbestos produced at four Italian facilities and includes employees who worked there as well as people living nearby.

The two defendants are accused of causing an environmental disaster and failing to comply with safety regulations, but their lawyers said they were optimistic.

“The trial did not demonstrate criminal responsibility for my client,” said Guido Carlo Alleva, a lawyer for the Swiss billionaire.

Cesare Zaccone, who is defending De Cartier, said his client was not directly involved in the facilities, adding: “I am confident.”

Asbestos, which was banned in Europe in 2005 but is still widely used in the developing world, had been used mainly as building insulation for its sound absorption and resistance to fire, heat and electrical damage.

Exposure to the fibrous mineral can cause lung inflammation and cancer.

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Some deodorants could cause breast cancer: Swiss study

Women who regularly use deodorants containing aluminium salts could risk developing breast cancer, a new Swiss study warns.

Some deodorants could cause breast cancer: Swiss study
Twelve thousand women participated in a race against breast cancer in Le Mans, France, October 2014. Photo: AFP

Initial tests on isolated mammary cells derived from a normal human gland were later replicated in studies on mice, and the results were the same: long-term exposure to concentrations of aluminium caused cells to form tumours and metastasise.

“I think we should avoid all deodorants containing aluminium salts,” co-author André-Pascal Sappino told The Local. 

“And it’s very difficult to be sure that the so-called ‘without aluminium’ brands really are without,” added the oncology professor from the University of Geneva. 

Sappino said the team's earlier research was treated with scepticism, but mounting evidence meant it was much easier to get published this time.

For now, aluminium salts were a “suspect, not yet convicted”, said the professor, who drew an analogy with asbestos, the use of which is banned in Switzerland and the European Union. 

“Asbestos is cheap, has very attractive industrial potential, and it took 50 years to ban it. We hope it doesn’t take so long to ban aluminium salts,” said Sappino. 

Like asbestos, aluminium is not detectably mutagenic in bacteria, but subcutaneous injections of aluminium salts in mice resulted in “very aggressive tumours”. 

While the study has not completely established a formal link with breast cancer, Sappino said he would advise all women against using deodorants that contain aluminium salts. 

Men too should think twice: while breast cancer among men is rare, its incidence is rising, Sappino said. 

The oncologist said he fully expected to face resistance from the cosmetics industry. 

“Now the fight will begin. They will act like the tobacco industry and say that proof in human beings is lacking.” 

Sappino said he expected that team’s finding would make it easier to secure funding to further examine the cancer-causing effects of aluminium salts. 

The study, co-authored by four researchers from the Clinique des Grangettes, is published in the International Journal of Cancer.