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Health office to inspect old watchmaking sites

Occupational safety has come a long way since the 1960s Keystone

Switzerland’s Federal Health Office has announced that it will be examining former watchmaking workshops in the Jura region for radioactivity over the next year.

This content was published on June 8, 2014 - 12:22
swissinfo.ch and agencies

As the office announced on Sunday, the radioactive material came from radium-based paint that gives watch faces a neon glow. From 1912-1963 some 85 workshops used the radioactive paint – as the SonntagsZeitung newspaper discovered through federal records. Of the 85, only 25 got permits to continue using it after 1963; these were properly decontaminated and are regularly inspected.

Now the focus is on 60 buildings that once housed workshops using the radium paint powder – a fine substance that is easily trapped between floorboards, for example. Over the next 12 months, the health office plans to visit each site and measure the level of radioactivity.

While the health office has said it does not believe that there is a serious risk at the moment, the SonntagsZeitung interviewed a pathologist who said that traces of the radium powder could still cause cancer. The newspaper also spoke with relatives of former watchmakers who had died of cancer.

The discussion comes just days after the health office admitted to poor communication in the case of radioactive waste found at a construction site outside Biel two years ago. This waste, also containing radium, is thought to stem from the watchmaking industry, too.

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