“What are you doing here? Are you here to die?” This is what a older colleague told to a twenty-four year old worker who was just been hired at Eternit in 1974. After a little time, that same colleague passed away.
Asbestos, an environmental serial killer. Is it possible to die because of one’s own work? Unfortunately it is, and the story of Eternit in Casale Monferrato, Italy, is a good example of this dramatic incongruity.
The movie “Dust, the great asbestos trial” (“Polvere, il grande processo dell’amianto” is the original title), directed by Niccolò Bruna and Andrea Prandstraller, manages to show the drama of the life inside the factory reporting some of the hearings of the “biggest criminal case for environmental disaster ever filed in Europe”. But it also tells about an entire community becoming conscious in the face to the incredible number of deaths affecting those who worked in that factory. “We thought it was the right story to deal with the topic of corporate social responsibility” Bruna and Prandstraller tell us. “It is an Italian story, but it has an international dimension because Eternit had plants in all Europe and South America, too […]. The backbone of the film are the hearings of the trial, which was held in Turin. It also tells an individual story anyway, the one of Luisa Minazzi [one of the best-known activists, whose name has been given to a Legambiente annual Award], who fell ill with pleural mesothelioma.
Eternit was a factory which produced building materials such as pipes and fire resistant roofs, elastic and robust enough to deserve the name of “eternit”, that is eternal. A material that had a very wide circulation thanks to its qualities, which for a long time have been putting into the background the heavy harmful effects it had. Not only during its production, but also hereinafter: when, with the passage of years, these materials began to flake apart despite the glorious name and started releasing their thin and harmful fibers.
In almost 80 years of activity Eternit gave a trusted job to 5,000 people: “just like the Fiat”, people in the film says. It meant really a lot for the economic life of this town. In return, however, it also took a lot, very often everything. Nearly 3,000 people among workers and citizens died in Casale due to asbestosis and pleural mesothelioma, both caused by the inhalation of very thin fibers of asbestos. These are diseases that continue to kill people because of the long incubation period of (which is up to 30 years) and the delayed reclamations.
In a moment of the film Bruno Pesce, Secretary of the Chamber of Labour in Casale and active coordinator of Afeva (Italian Association of Asbestos Victims), reveals that unfortunately it was considered normal that workers died, even at young age. The “dust”, as asbestos was called, was everywhere in the plant. The workers breathed it continuously during the working hours. As it is clear from the statements, the dust also spread out: the workers came back home in overalls after having roughly cleaned up, and maybe the first thing they did was to embrace their children. Yet the devastating effects on health were known already, resulting from the earliest studies in the 60s.
Eternit in Casale Monferrato closed permanently in 1986. To this day, the use of asbestos is banned in 53 countries. Nevertheless, according to the data reported by the documentary, 100,000 people die each year in the world. In spite of this endless slaughter, manufacture and distribution are still allowed in states such as Brazil and India. Therefore, although the effects are devastating and proved, free zones exist where the Eternit is still produced.
“Dust, The great trial of asbestos”, was honored with a Legambiente Special Mention at the Festival CinemAmbiente 2011, a member of the Green Film Network. Among the reasons for the award we can read: “It highlights the relationship among environment, labor and health in an objective, engaging way at the same time”.