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HEALTH

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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HEALTH INSURANCE

What isn’t covered by Switzerland’s compulsory health insurance?

Switzerland’s basic health insurance is among the most expensive in the world, but there are certain services it doesn’t pay for. Here are some of the benefits the scheme won’t cover in full.

What isn't covered by Switzerland’s compulsory health insurance?

Basic insurance — KVG in German and LaMal in French and Italian —  is compulsory in Switzerland. It doesn’t come cheap, but it is quite comprehensive and includes coverage for illness, medications, tests, maternity, physical therapy, preventive care, and many other treatments.

It also covers accidents for those who do not have accident insurance through their workplace.

Basically, whatever the doctor orders is covered by KVG / LaMal, at least partially.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about health insurance in Switzerland

However, there are some treatments the basic insurance won’t pay for.

Experimental treatments

Any experimental treatments or drugs — that is, those not approved by the Swissmedic regulatory agency or the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) will not be covered.

This exclusion is not specifically Swiss; insurance schemes is most countries won’t cover unauthorised medical treatment either.

Dental care

In most cases, services such as teeth cleaning, dental fillings, root canals, tooth extractions, and orthodontic braces, are not included under basic insurance.

The only exceptions, according to the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), are dental interventions “necessitated by a serious disorder of the masticatory system, or if such treatment is required to support and ensure the success of medical treatment for a severe general disorder (e.g. leukaemia, heart-valve replacement)”.

Most dental treatments are not covered. Photo by Pixabay

Eyeglasses and contact lenses

Compulsory health insurance will contribute up to 180 francs per year towards glasses and contact lenses prescribed by an ophthalmologist for children up to the age of 18.

No such benefit exist for adults. However, “in the case of serious visual impairment or certain illnesses (e.g. disease-related refraction abnormalities, postoperative alterations or corneal disease), compulsory health insurance will, regardless of age, make higher contributions towards medically prescribed spectacle and contact lenses”, FOPH says.

READ MORE: Reader question: Can Swiss health insurance exclude me if I have pre-existing conditions?

Ambulance

Emergency vehicles that transport you to a hospital can be quite expensive — depending on the canton, the costs can range from 900 to 2,000 francs per trip. 

Basic health insurance will contribute a certain amount  to the cost of emergency transportation, but only if it is a medical necessity — a serious accident, an illness, or a life-threatening situation. But if the patient could have travelled by private car or public transport, basic health insurance policies will pay nothing.

Insurance will cover some of the cost of ambulance transport only in emergency. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Private hospital room

While the cost of your hospitalisation will be fully covered, the basic insurance does not pay for a private room.

You will be accommodated in a room with other patients.

Depending on a medical facility — whether it’s a small hospital or a large, university medical centre, you could end up with just one other person or possibly four or five, the latter being common in teaching hospitals.

If you insist on a private accommodation, you will have to pay for it out of your own pocket.

Reader question: Can Swiss health insurance exclude me if I have pre-existing conditions?

Vaccines

Immunisations outlined by FOPH  will be paid for by insurance, as will the Covid vaccine.

Not covered, however, are travel-related vaccinations or preventive measures, such as against yellow fever or malaria.

Treatment abroad

Outside Switzerland, only emergency care is covered  — double the amount that the same treatment would cost in Switzerland.

Usually, basic health insurance will not cover transportation costs back to Switzerland, except in case of emergency, when it will cover 50 percent of the total cost of transportation to the nearest hospital abroad — but no more than 500 francs per year. 

If you only have a basic insurance policy and travel abroad often, especially to the United States, you should take out a travel insurance that will cover you for illness and accidents in foreign countries above and beyond what your Swiss carrier will pay.

And if you want to upgrade your treatment options, consider taking out a supplemental insurance or, if you can afford it, private one.

READ MORE: Should you buy supplemental health insurance in Switzerland?

You can find out more about what KVG / LaMal will and will not cover here.

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