For the past 18 months, Swiss authorities allegedly have been covering up the presence of highly radioactive material, which in some areas emits radiation of well over 100 times the permitted amount. According to Le Matin, 120kg of highly radioactive radium-based paint, originally used by the watchmaking industry to make watch faces visible at night, was found in an old dump near the town of Biel/Bienne in the Canton of Bern.
Le Matin reports that cantonal and local authorities kept the radioactive waste secret so as not to worry the town’s 50,000 inhabitants. Exposure to the substance for more than three hours would be equivalent to the total amount of time allowed for radioactive exposure per year.
Radium has been banned since 1963 because of its high levels of radioactivity. An infamous case in the 1930’s illustrated the dire effects of radium exposure. The “Radium Girls”, a group of women in the US who painted watch faces, later suffered serious health effects after they ingested radium by routinely licking their brushes to give them a finer point. Their exposure to radium caused serious health problems, including bone cancer.
François Bochud, president of the Federal Commission in charge of monitoring radiation (CPR), maintains that he had not been informed and has blamed the local authorities. For their part, these officials say that the Swiss Federal Department of Public Health (OFSP) should have informed residents. The OFSP has announced that over the next year, it will be inspecting former watchmaking workshops in the Jura region for radioactive contamination.