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Asbestos Victims Ask Yale to Revoke an Honorary Degree

An Italian organization representing victims of asbestos exposure has asked Yale University to rescind an honorary degree awarded to the owner of the company they once worked for.

In the mid-1970s, Swiss billionaire Stefan Schmidheiny took over his family’s business. The Eternit company had plants around the world that produced asbestos cement products. The largest was in Casale Monferrato, Italy.

Connecticut lawyer Christopher Meisenkothen represents shipyard workers and boiler makers who worked with asbestos here in the U.S., and later developed diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. He is handling the Italian request to Yale, pro bono.

Meisenkothen described notes from an Eternit company meeting in the 1970s. "Clearly," he said, "they were acknowledging in 1976 that the workers were at risk. The plant continued to use asbestos for many years after that. They could have given the workers respiratory protection, [or] installed exhaust fans. And the worker testimony from workers at the time consistently indicates that there were no serious precautions taken in the plant."

Two years later, Schmidheiny began to dismantle the company's asbestos processing concern. He went on to use his wealth to support eco-friendly sustainable development in other parts of the world.

In 2012, Schmidheiny was tried in absentia in Italy. He was found guilty of causing the deaths of thousands of people in Casale Monferrato, and has been sentenced to 18 years in prison. Victims and their families said Yale should reconsider whether he still deserves an honorary degree.

Thomas Pogge, a professor in the philosophy department at Yale University, said the accusations deserve careful inquiry. "This is very important new information," he said, "that I think, at the very least, should be looked at very carefully by the authorities at Yale. Yale has a very distinguished record, actually, in asbestos research. And we have the requisite expertise to convene an excellent faculty committee that could look into this case in more depth."

Yale authorities declined WNPR’s request for comment, but in a statement, said the 1996 honorary degree was based on Schmidheiny’s advocacy for sustainable economic development. Yale has never revoked an honorary degree.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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