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Cyprus

Astrasol cancer case unprecedented despite low pay-outs

The Astrasol shoe factory in Latsia

Government and Latsia shoe factory were found responsible for creating a cancer cluster

 

By Elias Hazou

The verdict in the case of Astrasol, the shoe sole manufacturers sued for their toxic gas emissions, may be the only case globally where a court accepted that the substance Dichloromethane (DCM) is demonstrably a cancer hazard. But whereas the plaintiffs may have felt some satisfaction from this recognition, the amounts awarded in compensation left a lot to be desired as many of the victims continue to need expensive cancer treatment.

Last Monday Nicosia district court awarded compensation to six of the plaintiffs who had sued the company.

The amounts awarded were deemed “exceptionally low and unacceptable” by the committee for the cancer victims.

The committee expressed its “great disappointment for the court’s approach, which was aware of the terrible circumstances and the long periods for which the victims in question suffered.”

While the compensation sums that were being claimed by the six persons, four of whom have been diagnosed with cancer, ranged between €500,000 and €1m, the actual amounts granted by the court were much lower.

After class-action lawsuits filed by some 20 people, headed by Theofanis Chrysanthou and Constantina Barka, the parents of 11-year-old Stavros who was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of five, the Nicosia district court in December 2017 found that government services and the Astrasol shoe factory in Latsia were inadvertently responsible for creating a cancer cluster for people working in and living near the factory.

The plaintiffs claimed that for over 30 years Astrasol used dichloromethane R40 in processing its shoe soles, a chemical which has been classified as ‘likely to be carcinogenic in humans’.

For 11-year-old Stavros, the court last Monday decided on compensation of €100,000 for the pain and discomfort caused by leukaemia which was brought about by the illegal activities of the factory.

Ever since the child was diagnosed with leukaemia, and later with myocarditis, Stavros and his family have been forced to travel to and from the US for tests and treatment, and will continue to do so for the rest of his life, the committee claimed.

For his father, Theofanis Chrysanthou, the court decided on compensation of €46,078.44 for expenses in New York, €20,500 for tickets, €46,892.36 for loss of income and €5,000 for nuisance and intervention in his ability to enjoy his home.

For Constantina Barka, the mother of the child, the court granted a compensation of €5,000 for nuisance and intervention in her ability to enjoy her home.

File photo of a demonstration by Astrasol plaintiffs

Despite their frustration, it’s understood that for the time being the plaintiffs are reluctant to speak to the media until after compensation has been adjudicated in the remaining cases as well.

This is expected to happen in a few weeks’ time, Loukis Loukaides, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told the Sunday Mail.

Compensation decisions are still pending for 16 plaintiffs, relatives of people who it is claimed died of cancer as a result of the factory’s operations.

The awaited compensation relates to seven deceased persons.

Asked about the amounts already awarded to the still-living victims, Loukaides said they are indeed low, especially when compared to similar lawsuits overseas, where victims can be awarded millions.

“In court, I presented examples of comparable lawsuits in other Western countries, such as the Johnson & Johnson case. That said, and although the moneys awarded in our case were low, one also has to take into account that Cyprus is a small country, with smaller means, and cannot be directly compared to other countries.”

In spite of the problematic compensation sums, the lawyer stresses this was a milestone case – perhaps the first ever in Cyprus where someone has been found liable for toxic atmospheric emissions.

Those found guilty in December 2017 were: Astrasol itself; Fivos Liasis, one of the directors of Astrasol; and the state via the attorney-general (on behalf of the labour inspection department, the ministry of health and the town planning department).

The government departments in question were deemed responsible for either allowing the factory to continue operating without the necessary permits, and for not taking steps to mitigate the toxic emissions.

The compensation rulings took so long to be delivered, because in the meantime the defendants had appealed the initial decision – and lost.

DCM itself is not a banned substance. The factory was guilty of having exceeded the designated emissions limits.

The case highlighted the lack of dedicated legislation. No limit on DCM atmospheric emissions was designated in Cypriot or EU law. So the labour inspection department decided to use guidelines, deferring to the maximum permissible concentration designated then by the United States’ Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Reading through the December 2017 court decision reveals a twisted tale of red tape, government ineptitude, and a game of cat-and-mouse between the factory and the agencies tasked with monitoring emissions. All the while, people living nearby were being poisoned.

For example: in March 1999 Astrasol secured a certificate from the then minister of labour to manufacture polyurethane soles. Valid until 2004, the certificate set a cap on the total amount of permissible emissions of organic substances, but did not designate a limit for DCM separately.

From July 1999, when the certificate of operation was issued, to June 2004 when it expired, the labour inspection department did not take any measurements for gaseous emissions.

According to the court transcript, the health hazard to locals was known since 2005. After measurements had shown that DCM emissions were being exceeded, the labour ministry took no action to terminate the factory’s unlawful operation.

In 2004 Astrasol, by which time it had moved its premises to Latsia, applied for and secured a permit for gaseous emissions. This permit was valid until 2009. The factory obtained the permit despite the fact that the new premises into which it moved did not possess a permit specifically to manufacture shoe soles. However, this permit did include a clause on the maximum permissible emissions of DCM R40.

Of 12 measurements taken for DCM at the factory stack from 2005 to 2009, eight were far above the limit set of 20mg/Nm3. In one measurement, DCM emissions registered 116mg/Nm3.

Subsequently the department of labour inspection took more DCM measurements. Because no limit on DCM emissions (for the atmosphere) was designated in Cypriot or EU law, the labour inspection department deferred to the maximum permissible concentration set by the United States’ Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was 95mg/Nm3.

This concentration applied to the workers in the factory. When extrapolated for the surrounding area, the limit was divided by 40, which worked out to an atmospheric pollution limit of 2.4mg/Nm3.

Samples of atmospheric air taken immediately after the permit was issued, showed levels of DCM well below 2.4mg/Nm3.

But later samples in early 2009 registered DCM levels well above that threshold.


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