Lausanne tackles toxic soil after shock discovery

Lausanne, the capital of Olympic sport overlooking Lake Geneva, is reeling after discovering that much of its soil is polluted with toxic compounds belched out by an old incinerator.

An aerial picture shows the site of a now-dismantled domestic waste incineration plant blamed for dioxin pollution in Lausanne
An aerial picture, taken on October 14th, 2021, shows the site of a now-dismantled domestic waste incineration plant blamed for dioxin pollution in Lausanne. (Photo by Boris HEGER / AFP)

The situation, which has troubling implications for children and eating home-grown food, is unprecedented in wealthy Switzerland, which prides itself on its pristine mountains, lakes and pastures.

A domestic waste incineration plant in the Alpine nation’s fourth-biggest city — closed since in 2005 — is being blamed for the dioxin fall-out.

Dioxins, which belong to the so-called ‘dirty dozen’ dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants, have the potential to be highly toxic.

They have been shown to affect several organs and systems.

The problem was discovered by sheer chance between January and May this year at a planned new ecological allotment in the city.

For years, pollution monitoring had focused on air and water.

“As we did not look for dioxins, we never found them,” Natacha Litzistorf, the city councillor for the environment, told AFP.

The discovery triggered soil analysis measurements at 126 sites across the city. Experts also looked at the risks associated with exposure to polluted soils.

Pollution map
This week, Lausanne announced that those studies found the dioxin levels, and the expanse of the affected area, were much worse than previously thought.

The city has issued a map showing four concentric rings, with zones containing concentrations in the soil of 20-50 nanogrammes (ng) per kilogramme, 50-100, 100-200 and then above 200 in the middle. A peak of 640 was recorded in the city centre.

The affected zone stretches 5.25 kilometres (3.2 miles) inland and measures around 3.6 kilometres across.

A map shows the different concentrations of dioxin in the affected areas of Lausanne

A map showing the different concentrations of dioxin found in the affected areas of Lausanne. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

People are instructed to wash fruit and vegetables grown in gardens and allotments and wash their hands after touching soil.

In zones with more than 100 ng toxic equivalent per kg, root vegetables grown in the area must be washed and peeled. Courgettes, cucumbers, gherkins, squashes, marrows and melons grown in the soil should not be eaten.

In all the affected zones, people should not eat chickens raised on the soil, offer or sell eggs from such chickens, while only those in the 20-50 zone can eat their eggs — though just one per week.

Parents must also stop infants aged under four from ingesting soil, for example by touching their mouths after playing on the ground.

Warning signs have been installed around the city’s parks and playgrounds.

‘Tempt the devil’
The concentric circles appear to lead to only one source.

“We quickly suspected the cause was linked to a former incinerator,” Litzistorf said.

The Vallon plant opened in 1958 and was initially welcomed as a way of dealing with the city’s garbage.

“At the time, it was thought much better to site waste incinerators in the city centre to protect agriculture in the countryside,” Litzistorf explained.

The dioxin pollution dates from 1958 to 1982, when the Vallon filters were upgraded to environmental norms.

Didier Burgi, who owns a vegetable garden plot, said the discovery had sparked questions among veteran home growers.

“We are not going to eat the squashes. We don’t have a lot of them, but there was specific information about them and we’re not going to tempt the devil,” he told AFP.

The major Chatelard allotment, by the new football stadium on the edge of the city, heard Thursday that it had readings under 20 ng.

Plot holder Jose Torres compared his imperfect tomatoes to the flawless ones in supermarkets.

“Everything you buy is full of chemicals,” he said. “From my plot, I know what I’m eating.”

Jacqueline Felder, tilling her beans, spinach, lettuce and carrots in the afternoon sunshine, said: “I’ve been growing vegetables for 15 years. We are not worried.

“People are afraid of everything these days.

“The Earth is our mother. Respect it.”

Beans growing in a dioxin-polluted garden in front of a block of flats in Lausanne

Beans growing in the dioxin-polluted allotment garden of La Borde in the centre of Lausanne. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Next steps
The World Health Organization says short-term exposure to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne and patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function.

Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions.

Litzistorf said she was not aware of anyone coming forward with physical conditions linked to dioxin pollution.

But the question of potential liability remains unresolved, as does the issue of what to do next, as the dioxin hunt expands.

Whether the soil can be cleaned up, on such a wide scale, “is the question that everyone is asking”, said Litzistorf — along with who should do it, how, and how much it might cost.

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UPDATE: What are Switzerland’s rules for cannabis consumption?

Switzerland has a complicated set of rules for both medical and recreational cannabis consumption. Here's what you need to know.

UPDATE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

Long prohibited and seen as a gateway drug with potentially dangerous impacts, countries across the globe have begun legalising cannabis in recent years. 

While the legalisation for medical use has been widespread, there have also been successful legalisation campaigns in several countries. 

The situation in Switzerland is also in flux and has been complicated by a range of recent changes.

Whether referred to as cannabis, marijuana or hemp, Switzerland’s Narcotics Act qualifies it as “a psychoactive substance”, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being its most intoxicating ingredient.

The law specifies that “only THC is controlled under the Narcotics Act. Other active substances like cannabidiol (CBD) are not subject to the Narcotics Act as they do not have comparable psychoactive effects”.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Switzerland has legalised medical marijuana 

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes will be allowed in Switzerland

Patients who are medically prescribed the drug will no longer need to seek exceptional permission from the health ministry, as was the case prior to August 1st. 

Demand for cannabis-based treatments has risen sharply, with the health ministry issuing 3,000 exceptional authorisations in 2019.

The government “intends to facilitate access to cannabis for medical use for patients” and was therefore lifting the ban on its use for that purpose, it said in a statement.

The previous procedure involved “tedious administrative procedures”, said the ministry. “Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy.”

As of August 1st, “the decision as to whether a cannabis medicinal product is to be used therapeutically will be made by the doctor together with the patient” the government wrote

The sale and consumption of cannabis for non-medical purposes will remain prohibited.

READ MORE: Switzerland to lift ban on medical use cannabis

The new regulations could benefit thousands of people suffering from severe chronic pain, it added, including those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

READ ALSO: Why Basel is about to become Switzerland’s marijuana capital

The law change will also mean that the cultivation, processing, manufacture and trade of cannabis for medical use will be subject to the Swissmedic regulatory authority, just as with other narcotics for medical use such as cocaine, methadone and morphine.

Legality of recreational cannabis is determined by the THC

THC of at least 1 percent is generally prohibited in Switzerland and use of products with this (or higher) content may be punishable by a 100-franc fine.

Of course, if someone is determined to smoke it, 100 francs may not be much a deterrent — but that’s a subject for another article.

“By contrast, possession of up to 10g of cannabis for personal use is not considered a criminal offence”, the law states, as long as it is not used by or sold to minors.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

And, as with nearly everything else in decentralised Switzerland, “there are still considerable differences between cantons regarding implementation of the fixed penalty procedure”.

However, “cannabis flowers intended for smoking with a high proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 1 percent THC can be sold and purchased legally”, according to the legislation. 

That’s because, unlike the THC, cannabidiol “does not have a psychoactive effect”.

In other words, low-content THC and CBD will not give the “high” that recreational users seek.

When will Switzerland legalise recreational cannabis?

Currently, small amounts of recreational cannabis are tolerated in Switzerland.

“The decisive factor for classification as a banned drug is how much THC is contained in a cannabis product. If the THC content exceeds one per cent, the product is prohibited. Hashish is prohibited regardless of its THC content.”

As noted by the Swiss government, “If you are caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis (no more than 10 grams) for your own consumption, you will not be fined. In addition, if you supply (but do not sell) up to 10 grams to an adult, e.g. when sharing joints, you will not be fined.”

“If you are caught using cannabis, you may be given a fixed penalty fine of 100 francs.”

In June 2020, the National Council approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use.

The experiments are to be carried out in Switzerland’s larger cities. Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich have all expressed interest in conducting the trials. 

The study seeks to find out how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation will also be examined. 

At this point, no decisions have been made. However, Swiss authorities have set certain conditions in case recreational use is approved.

The National Council said if cannabis were to be legalised, it must be locally grown in Switzerland – and it must be organic. 

Health Minister Alain Berset noted that legalisation should benefit Swiss farmers even though “very few producers have experience in this area”.

READ MORE: Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Can you grow your own cannabis?

In truth, a number of people cultivate marijuana plants on their balconies or in their (secluded) gardens for their own personal use.

As it turns out, the law allows it, as long as it is a variety of the plant that does not have a narcotic effect — that is, the THC content must be less than 1 percent. 

By the same token, cannabis-based products with THC content of below 1 percent can be brought into Switzerland from abroad.

However, the import rules differ depending on the type of product  it is — flowers, seeds, extracts, oils, or other goods.

How much cannabis is consumed in Switzerland each year?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to an article in Le Temps, which based its information on a medical study, about 100 tonnes are consumed in the country annually.

Cannabis remains the largest market in terms of volume: it represents 85 percent of drugs consumed in Switzerland, netting between 340, 000 and 500,000 francs per year.

READ MORE: Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume?