Eric Jonckheere: A lifetime dedicated to eradicating asbestos – in memory of his family

Eric Jonckheere was born and brought up in a small town in Belgium. Growing up, his family worked, lived around and trusted the local Eternit factory in his hometown of Kapelle, 35km north of Brussels.

Eric’s father, Pierre, and uncle, Jacques, both worked at the Belgian multinational Eternit asbestos-cement factory. After years of dedicated work, Pierre contracted mesothelioma and died in 1987, not knowing that the rest of the family had also been heavily exposed to, and contaminated by, asbestos.

Following the loss of her husband, Eric’s mother Francoise was later also diagnosed with mesothelioma and subsequently refused a €42,000 settlement offer from Eternit, which would have forced her to remain quiet about her family’s asbestos exposure. Instead, she chose to speak out. 13 years after losing their father, Eric’s mother and two brothers also contracted asbestos-related diseases and sadly passed away.

Francoise was one of the founding members of ABEVA (The Association of Asbestos Victims in Belgium). Eric and his brothers promised their mother that they would continue the work of ABEVA, along with the fight for justice, after her passing.

Commitment to anti-asbestos activism

Because environmental exposure to the killer dust claimed the lives of his parents and two brothers, Eric is unrelenting in his dedication to ending the man-made asbestos disaster. He is a passionate warrior for justice who has been at the forefront of the international movement to ban the production, trade and use of asbestos for years.

In 2018, during the Asbestos Awareness & Prevention Conference in Washington D.C., Eric was recognised for his exceptional advocacy work to ban asbestos by receiving the ADAO Alan Reinstein Memorial Award.

Today, Eric is not only a pilot, author and dedicated anti-asbestos activist, but also serves as the President of ABEVA, travelling the world to get his story out.

Trusting the factory bosses

Speaking about his devastating story, Eric said: “We lived close to the industrial facilities and my grandfather was personally close to the owners, one of Belgium’s richest families.

“At the time, we (and the local community) believed the messages that it was safe and had no evidence or arguments to question or counter this narrative. We’d been brought up to trust the Eternit management and had even put the family Emsens (owners) on a pedestal.

“Out of the blue, my father was diagnosed with mesothelioma and we assumed that it was an occupational disease. Despite not working at the plant, my mother was also diagnosed some 13 years later. There were lots of questions and anger! Where would the exposure to asbestos have come from if it wasn’t directly related to the factory?!”

Eric Jonckheere speaks at our Patient & Carer Day 2023

Silence cannot be bought

“What followed was a tough discussion with Eternit’s CEO and the company’s legal team. My mother was offered ‘hush money’ for her silence but wanted to keep her freedom to talk to the press and start a court case. We went on to win the first-ever court case with Eternit in 2013 but in 2017, the amount of damages was reduced on appeal to €25,000.

“We did not continue the court case after her death. Eternit expressed their sadness but our case was already proven, thanks to documents shared by lawyers showing that Eternit had chosen not to attend a pivotal New York meeting where the dangers of asbestos were discussed with scientists and experts. Tragically, it was not just our family that was affected and there have been multiple cases since.”

Fund supports claimants

“We successfully pushed for the creation of a nationwide Asbestos Fund in 2007, offering financial compensation for those who can prove that their illness resulted from asbestos fibre inhalation. It’s funded by income tax plus payrolls from businesses at around 0.01%. However, it’s unfair that a small business like a butcher should have to contribute in the same way as a large employer such as Eternit. They were the biggest asbestos user in Belgium and should pay, accordingly.

“We continue to lobby politicians. They were not doing their job in the 1960s when asbestos should have been banned so we’re still paying for that indecision. The state of Belgium has now accepted responsibility; these days, all types of asbestos have been banned.”

Time to make the polluter the payer

“Official figures show that 350 people per year die of asbestos exposure in the country but based on extrapolation from other data, we believe that it is closer to 900. There is a strong asbestos lobby in Belgium, exerting pressure on our decision-makers but politicians sadly continue to be influenced by some corporations.

“We’re moving forwards too slowly and need public funds. More activists would make a difference as it will take a large number to change policies. We want victims to speak out, with whistleblowers becoming more active to raise awareness about the dangers of asbestos. I dream of seeing thousands of people marching for change.

“States don’t accept that they have to spend billions to alleviate this danger or it will just continue and people will die. It infuriates me that we can afford to spend billions to fund new jet fighters but not to address this fatal problem.

“This can no longer continue. We need to make the polluter become the payer and it’s time for politicians to act. People can force this by changing their votes.”

You can read more about the story of this family torn apart by the asbestos company where they lived in Eric’s book, ‘Asbestos: My War with the Devil’s Dust’. Copies of the book can be purchased by contacting Eric Jonckheere at jonckair@yahoo.com

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Disclaimer: These stories are based on personal experience and do not constitute medical advice. We recommend you speak to your healthcare team or phone our support line if you have any questions relating to your care or treatment.

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