Asbestos found in famous Italian opera house

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Milan’s La Scala opera house was closed for major renovation works between 2002 and 2004. Its closure in 2009, however, was due to asbestos having been found in part of the ceiling over the auditorium. The area was immediately sealed off to prevent asbestos dust and fibres spreading to other areas, and work ensued to remove the substance from a corniced area above the upper gallery.

Now, four former mayors of Milan are being investigated over seven deaths related to asbestos exposure at the opera house. Their time in service as mayor ranged from 1976 to 1997 – a time when asbestos was widely used in Italy, until its ban in 1992.

La Scala opera house has endured its own dramatic past. Wartime bomb damage forced its closure in 1943, but rebuilding went ahead and led to it being reopened three years later.

Charges of manslaughter and grievous bodily harm

The four ex-mayors face charges of manslaughter and grievous bodily harm in relation to these seven deaths, with a former superintendent of the opera house, in office between 1990 and 2005, also under investigation.

Figures suggest that 80% of the asbestos-containing materials present in Italy’s buildings at the time of the 1992 ban, still remained in 2012. The potential risk to worker safety is evident, and as well as the problem in La Scala, there have been several other asbestos-related incidents that have caught the attention of the Italian press.

More than 2,000 asbestos deaths

One such case involved Swiss construction company, Eternit, whose owners were found to be responsible for the asbestos-related deaths of more than 2,000 people, including workers who lived near factories in northern, southern and central Italy.

The company had allowed asbestos fibres to drift over parts of northern Italy, risking the health of residents in the entire area. Eight hundred people who didn’t even work at the factory are said to have been affected.

Two former executives of the company were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter by an Italian court in 2012, only for the verdict to be reversed in 2014, to the disbelief of victims’ families and friends, and many asbestos campaign groups.

A 16-year jail sentence had been handed down to each of the two men, along with fines totalling more than $50 million. The landmark ruling brought hope for justice in asbestos-related cases, and at the time, Italy’s Health Minister, Renato Balduzzi, described the result as “without exaggeration, truly historic.”

Asbestos at the Pirelli tyre factory

In summer 2015, eleven members of the Pirelli board were convicted of manslaughter following the deaths of more than 20 tyre factory workers in Milan. The Pirelli executives received prison sentences of up to seven years and eight months for exposing workers to asbestos at the factory between 1979 and 1989.

Asbestos-related tumours and lung disease were said to have been the cause of death, and one family reportedly received compensation worth around €500,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

The global fight for justice on behalf of asbestos victims goes on.