Swiss tycoon acquitted over asbestos deaths

Italy's supreme court has overturned an 18-year prison sentence handed to Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny for causing 3,000 deaths linked to the use of asbestos in his factories.

Swiss tycoon acquitted over asbestos deaths
A man walks past banners posted by the Swiss victim association reading 'Mr Stephan Schmidheiny, we are also waiting for you in Switzerland' in Turin in 2009. Photo: Damien Meyer/AFP

The top Italian court ruled late Wednesday that the evidence on which he was originally convicted — in the biggest case of its kind against a multinational for asbestos-related deaths —  was now out of date, according to the Italian news agency Ansa.

Schmidheiny is the former owner of Italian company Eternit, which made construction material using asbestos in the 1970s and 1980s.

He was taken to court by a group of former employees and in 2012 was jailed in absentia for 16 years, a sentence that was raised by an appeals court to 18 years in 2013.

The tycoon was also ordered to pay tens of millions of euros in compensation to local authorities and families of the victims, who included factory workers and residents who lived near the three Eternit factories in northern, central and southern Italy.

Victims' relatives who had gathered at the court to hear the verdict shouted "Shame on you" after hearing that Schmidheiny's sentence had been overturned, Ansa said.

Supreme court prosecutor Francesco Mauro Iacovello had argued earlier in the day that the tycoon's conviction should be ruled invalid because the statute of limitations had expired in the case, sparking outrage from victims' families.

"Contorting the individual's right to justice may well produce justice today — but it could create a thousand more injustices in the future," said Iacovello.

"Sometimes what is right and what is just take different directions," he said.

"But for magistrates there is no alternative – they have to do what is right."

The statute of limitations surrounding the Eternit case should have been considered to have expired in 1998 – 12 years after the company went bankrupt, Iacovello said.

Referred to by Forbes magazine as the "Bill Gates of Switzerland" for his philanthropy, Schmidheiny had been found by the appeals court to have caused "a permanent health and environment catastrophe".

His lawyers argued that he did not have a direct responsibility in the management of Eternit Italy.

Once hailed as a miracle product, asbestos was used mainly as building insulation for its sound absorption and resistance to fire, heat and electrical damage.

It was banned in Europe in 2005, but is still widely used in the developing world.

The inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause lung inflammation and cancer, and symptoms can take up to 20 years to manifest after exposure.

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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.