The SAIAC Asbestos Cartel Controlled Much More Than Just Profits
The use of asbestos throughout the world came to prominence in the 20th century and since then has not only cost thousands of individuals their lives, but has had a significant impact on the environment. The known dangers of asbestos such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis date back to the 1920s and 1930s, but widespread knowledge about this carcinogen did not happen until decades later, particularly in the EU. Part of the blame in this delay in action in Europe can be traced back to four prominent and influential families of the industry: The Hatshceks, the Schmidheinys, the Emsens, and the Cuveliers.
In the early 1900s, an Austrian by the name of Ludwig Hatschek invented asbestos cement and patented it under the name Eternit – from the Latin word aeternitas – a name that showcased durability and strength. Asbestos cement was a process of simply adding asbestos fibers with cement and water for the purpose of reinforcing cement products. The use of asbestos had increased dramatically after WWII and continued to double for years to come as Europe was in a rebuilding period. By the year 1970, the majority of asbestos being used was for asbestos cement which contained 10% to 20% asbestos and 80% to 90% cement.
The first to acquire Eternit was Belgium entrepreneur Alphons Emsens. Emsens owned a building and material company and by 1905 had established a cement producing company called Eternit SA. Swiss entrepreneur, Ernst Schmidheiny, who already had a cement cartel established in Switzerland, teamed up with Emsens to gain the use of Eternit and soon Eternit Switzerland, was born. In Western Europe, French entrepreneur Joseph Cuvelier was making waves as an asbestos-cement producer. Cuvelier peaked the interest of Emsens and in 1922 SA Eternit France was established.
Meanwhile in Italy, engineer Adolfo Mazza used the Eternit method to produce high-pressure cement pipes and had much success. Over the course of just a few years, the process was perfected and the mass production of wide diameter pipes helped to supply drinking water all over the world.
Realizing that the success of cement cartels could be applied to asbestos, Schmidheiny established the Societe d’Associe Industries Amianteciment (SAIAC) cartel in 1929. Schmidheiny partnered with Tuner & Newell, British asbestos multinational and formed an association of various Eternit manufacturers throughout Europe. This included manufacturers in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy and Spain. SAIAC’s first project was to set up an Eternit company in Germany; a joint-venture of European Eternit companies and the American company Johns-Manville. Johns-Manville was the biggest asbestos producer at the time in America and also owned Canada’s largest asbestos mine.
Annual CFE reports dating back to as recently as 1980, note that these four families retained a dominant presence in the industry. With control over purchasing asbestos and securing the raw materials, the SAIAC remained profitable and powerful. This ultimate power in the industry gave the SAIAC control over many aspects of business, including information about the hazards of asbestos.
Medical studies that showed a correlation between asbestos exposure and illness remained unpublished for years and the SAIAC cartel remained adamant that there was not enough evidence to truly warrant illnesses such as asbestosis to be called an occupational disease. A tactic to combat all the negatively surrounding asbestos was to go in the opposite direction and highlight the benefits of the mineral and the products produced from it. At the International Conference of Asbestos Information in 1971, it was acknowledged that in the UK and North America especially, there was a growing interest on the dangers of asbestos and asbestos regulations were imminent. This caused a universal decision amongst 11 national centers of information to plan for common strategies to defend asbestos. The Asbestos International Association (AIA) was one of these types of organizations created specifically to lobby in defense of asbestos.
However, by the 1970s, the public was becoming more and more aware of the dangers of asbestos and competitors of Eternit began creating “asbestos-free” products. Eternit Switzerland switched to asbestos-free products, but eventually transferred all of its shares to Eternit Belgium, along with Johns-Manville and the British manufacturing company, Turner & Newell. Eternit Belgium became the largest asbestos cement producing company in the world until the 2000s.
Today, it is common knowledge that exposure to asbestos can cause illnesses such as lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a particularly aggressive cancer specifically caused by asbestos exposure. These tiny, sharp, and dangerous fibers are easily inhaled and unknowingly become embedded in soft tissue that surrounds vital organs and cavities. Medical studies showed even though it takes decades to develop, there is a direct correlation between asbestos exposure and illness; a fact that asbestos companies used to their advantage, figuring that by the time asbestos fibers caused any issues, their employees would already be retired.
If you believe you are suffering from an asbestos related disease, cancer, or illness such as lung cancer, it’s important to contact an experienced attorney at Goldberg, Persky, & White as soon as possible. The statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit from the time of diagnosis vary from state to state, with two years being one of the most common lengths of time. Many general questions are answered in our Ask an Asbestos Attorney section; please contact us for answers to your specific questions or to discuss, with no obligation, your case.
Dr. Rosalba Altopiedi & Dr. Sara Panelli, “The Great Trial,” Asbestos Disease Awareness (February 10, 2016). [Link]
R.F. Reurs & N. Schouten, “The Tragedy of Asbestos, Eternit and the Consequences of a Hundred Years of Asbestos Cement,” (May 2006). [Link]
Bob Ruers, “Eternit and the SAIAC Cartel,” Asbestos Dynasties – the Eternit Multinationals (March 2011). [Link]
Greenburg, M. “A Study of Lung Cancer Mortality in Asbestos Workers: Doll, 1955,” American Journal of Industrial Medicine (1999). [Link]
Bob Ruers, “The International Asbestos Cartel,” World Asbestos Report. [Link]