On Wednesday 10 December, the Italian supreme court quashed an 18-year prison sentence imposed on the ex-owner of Eternit, Stephan Schmidheiny.
Facing charges of environmental disaster, Mr Schmidheiny was found guilty in two previous cases of non-compliance with safety regulation.
However, the court ruled that a statute of limitations, now passed, invalidated further action. Eternit departed Italy some 25 years ago.
ECHR – the last resort?
Local unions and Afeva, which represents Italian victims of asbestos-related diseases, now plan to take the issue to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
A group of some 200 people, the majority from north-west Italy where thousands have died or become gravely ill with asbestos-related diseases, gathered in protest outside the court. Others arrived from Brazil, Belgium, Argentina, the US, Switzerland and Britain.
Activists now fear that a legal precedent has been set that will be exploited by the asbestos industry.
Afeva leader Bruno Pesce said the sentence came as a shock. "It seems that thousands of deaths never existed. We can't stop our fight when people keep on dying every week. My country missed a chance to tell the world the truth. We still ask for justice."
Victims and activists from Brazil, the 3rd-largest asbestos producer in the world, are especially unhappy with the ruling. Brazil produces 300,000 tonnes per annum, mainly for roofs, plasterboard and industrial water tank linings.
São Paulo University researchers believe 10% of the world's asbestos-related deaths occur in Brazil. "It's time to put an end to this, otherwise 30 years from now this epidemic will increase, and will reach uncontrollable levels," Ubiratan de Paula Santos said.
"Criminal" say activists
The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organisation said money and power had won again. "Eternit’s flagrant disregard for public health and the environment is reprehensible and criminal," the US-based body's president, Linda Reinstein, said.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that some 125 million people remain occupationally exposed to asbestos. This leads to over 107,000 deaths each year, mainly from mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer of the lung linings, and asbestosis.
Kills within months
Mesothelioma, in particular, is typified by a latency period of up to 40 years. People who were exposed to asbestos fibres at work in the 60s might only now know they are suffering from the disease. Once diagnosed, however, mesothelioma can kill within months.
6 states in Brazil have banned asbestos. Yet in spite of WHO resolutions, the material is still a high-value commodity and Brazil remains a net exporter of chrysotile to the US.