Court rules Eternit continued asbestos production despite knowing cancer risks
The Dutch-speaking Court of First Instance in Brussels has ruled that the cement manufacturer Eternit deliberately continued to produce asbestos despite being aware of the health consequences, according to a judgment handed down on 27 November. This decision led to Éric Jonckheere, who sued the company, contracting pleural cancer.
Eternit maintains that it was unaware of the negative health effects of asbestos, which was widely used in building materials due to its heat resistance and durability, despite scientific evidence dating back to 1907. Since 1998, it has been illegal to manufacture materials containing asbestos in Belgium.
The Court of First Instance ruled on 27 November that Eternit had continued to produce asbestos while knowing and accepting that some of its employees and their families would contract cancer. The court described Eternit's efforts to conceal the harmful nature of asbestos as "systematic manipulation" and "deliberate misrepresentation".
Jonckheere, the president of the Belgian asbestos victims'association Abeva, is the fifth in his family to suffer from the disease. His father worked at the Eternit factory in Kapelle-op-den-Bos and lived nearby. Five years ago, the Court of Appeal upheld a 2012 ruling that the factory was responsible for the illness of his mother, Françoise Van Noorbeeck.
The court awarded Éric Jonckheere provisional damages of 50,000 euros. According to Jonckheere and his lawyer, the ruling opens up important prospects for other victims, for the financing of the asbestos fund under the polluter-pays principle and for the future of asbestos removal in Belgium.
Other people will now be able to claim full compensation if their illness can be linked to Eternit, according to Abeva. In addition, there are still many private homes and public buildings in Belgium where asbestos is present, Abeva said, and a comprehensive asbestos removal programme has never been implemented.
"This pollution of the environment and living spaces is largely due to the efforts of Eternit, both in the production and marketing of asbestos and in covering up the extreme danger of this product," said Abeva. "Legal and political initiatives must be taken urgently to ensure that Eternit makes a substantial contribution to asbestos removal work."
© BELGA PHOTO BENOIT DOPPAGNE