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Swiss asbestos victims struggle for compensation

A Swiss association is helping people suffering from asbestos-related illnesses claim compensation.

The Organisation for Victims of Asbestos says the long-term effects of working with the mineral fibre have been cloaked in secrecy and victims are often unaware of their rights.

"People in the United States know about their rights because of trials that have taken place," Massimo Aliotta, a lawyer for the Zug-based organisation, told swissinfo.

Aliotta explained that claiming for damages is far more difficult in Switzerland, where class-action suits are not recognised by the courts.

Asbestos producer

Workers also have only ten years to file claims against their employers - which is too short a time for asbestos-related issues, Aliotta added.

The use of asbestos was banned in Switzerland in 1990, but the experts say its effect on workers' health is unlikely to become apparent before 2015, when cases of mesothelioma - cancer of the chest and abdominal linings - are expected to soar.

"Switzerland was the world's biggest producer of asbestos, with 100 kilograms per inhabitant," said François Iselin of the Lausanne-based Committee for Workers and Victims of Asbestos.

"But asbestos-related diseases can take up to 40 years to appear."

There are also concerns that many buildings in Switzerland still have asbestos insulation, over a decade after the removal of the fibres began.

According to Aliotta, by 1999, only half of the 4,000 buildings containing asbestos had been cleaned up.

Rising claims

Suva, a Swiss corporate health insurance company, says the number of cases of asbestos-related illness has risen from 38 per year during the 1990s to between 50 and 70 cases in recent years.

The insurer says it recorded 960 cases of asbestos-related illnesses, including nearly 600 deaths, between 1984 and 2001.

Over the same period, it paid out over SFr200 million ($145 million) in insurance benefits.

But Aliotta says many insurers - including Suva - have failed to properly inform their clients about the risks of asbestos, adding that Switzerland is years behind its neighbours in dealing with asbestos-related issues.

Suva refutes the accusations - but admits not all is perfect.

"Before 1984, the law didn't allow us to carry out medical checks," said Suva spokesman, Manfred Brünnler. "But before that date, this is a grey zone."

In the meantime, Suva has taken more active measures. A newsletter is now being sent to doctors, a brochure about clean-up measures is being prepared with unions and the insurer has created an asbestos forum.

The forum, which met for the first time last December, brings together representatives of the federal and cantonal governments.

swissinfo, Ariane Gigon (translation: Scott Capper)

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