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Radioactive ex-watchmaking sites need rehab

Some 30 former watchmaking workshops in Switzerland’s Jura region need renovating on account of high levels of radioactive radium. Another 370 – mainly in cantons Bern, Solothurn and Neuchâtel – are awaiting inspection.

On Monday, the Federal Office of Public Health announced that of the 130 sites it had inspected so far, 27 had unsafe levels of radium, and 12 of these had been cleaned up already.

The radioactive powder came from the radium-based paint used to give watch faces a neon glow up until the 1960s. It’s so fine that it could easily have lingered between floorboards in workshops that, in many cases, are now serving as homes.

According to the health office, buildings must be remediated if the people spending time there are exposed to more than one millisievert (mSv) of radium per year. In most of the 27 buildings needing renovation, the annual dosage was up to 5mSv. One registered 5-10mSv, and another exposing tenants to 10-15mSv of radium per year.

Waste from the remediated buildings is being placed into two temporary storage sites in Biel and La Chaux-de-Fonds. The budget for the clean-up – approved by the cabinet a year ago – is CHF5million ($5.1 million). The health authorities will check the remaining 370 buildings by 2019.

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