Two Swiss watchmakers take on the German Federal Ministry of the Environment over a proposal to ban tritium from consumer goods.
Some Swiss watchmakers say a tritium ban could send them back to the dark ages
Not all conflicts between Europe and Switzerland have to do with taxes or shady bank accounts. For the past year, two Swiss watchmakers have been at loggerheads with the German Federal Ministry of the Environment (BMU) on the issue of banning tritium in consumer goods. The bone of contention is a draft amendment to Germany’s Radiation Protection Code that would ban tritium in all consumer goods.
Tritium is a low-energy, beta particle-emitting isotope of hydrogen gas. It is used to illuminate markings on products including analog aircraft dials, gun sights, exit signs for dark areas, and, notably, the wristwatches of the Luminox and Traser brands.
The BMU amendment seeks to prohibit, among other things, "gas light sources that are not necessary for sovereign functions," meaning those functions essential in a watch, such as telling time.
Martin Grossenbacher, spokesman for Mondaine Ltd, the Swiss company that manufactures and distributes the American brand Luminox, says that alternatives to tritium, such as light phosphorescent paint, only hold a charge for a few hours.
Radioactive tritium vials make Luminox watches glow for up to 25 years
"Take a firefighter who is woken up at four in the morning and has to rush to the car - he needs to be able to read his watch" Grossenbacher points out. "It's the same for people in the health business, in the security business and rugged sports."
He says the tritium's constant glow makes Luminox watches popular with the US Navy SEALs, various coast guards, and helicopter rescue teams like Christoph 2 in Frankfurt.
Lighting up the dial
Swiss watchmakers are particularly upset that the German draft amendment fails to differentiate between the tritium paint once used on watch hands and dials (as a substitute for poisonous radium paint), and a new technology known as Gaseous Tritium Light Source (GTLS), which is marketed by the Swiss company mb-microtec.
GTLS involves enclosing tritium in tiny vials of tough borosilicate glass with a phosphorescent coating. The vials are then embedded in a watch dial to produce a constant glow for up to 25 years.
Watchmakers say the amounts of tritium used in GTLS watches are too small to be unhealthy
"We did all the tests with the Swiss health authorities, including a worst case scenario in which a wristwatch and all the vials are crushed at once,” says Sandro Schneider, CEO of mb-microtec, which also manufactures Traser watches. "You have to remember that tritium is hydrogen gas and it dissipates at a rate of three meters per second!”
Martin Grossenbacher is less scientific: "If you actually manage to crush a watch," he says with a slight air of incredulity, "it’s your arm you will have to be worried about."
Battles lines are drawn
In their struggle to get an exemption from the proposed amendment, the two Swiss watchmakers have found support among a number of politicians, bureaucrats and scientists in Germany.
Sandro Schneider, the CEO of mb-microtec, says the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Technology (BMWi) have both weighed in against the proposed amendment.
"This new law could cost many jobs in Germany during its fragile recovery from a recession," Schneider says. "This pointless amendment for watches using GTLS would, in the end, only hurt the dealers and users."
But he is quick to note that the industry has nothing against regulation. Prohibition, on the other hand, would lead to a rise in the gray and black markets and hence loss of control over the tritium-filled vials. With the Internet and open borders, a ban would be unenforceable.
Misplaced health concerns?
In October 2009, a group of scientific and medical organizations including the German-Swiss Association for Radiation Protection and the German Society for Nuclear Medicine published a position paper stating that they saw "no reason to make radiation protection in Germany any stricter."
Even when used as paint, tritium emits only 0.02 milliSievert of radiation, according to Germany’s own Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS). This figure is well below the official limit. With GTLS, the radiation is virtually undetectable.
Grossenbacher says soldiers and rescue workers depend on tritium watches
"People in the military and other professions use equipment with GTLS all the time," says Martin Grossenbacher. "We have been shipping watches to the USA for the past 20 years. We have had to conduct strict contamination tests on each shipment and not a single one has failed."
But the Ministry of the Environment is adamant that tritium should be banned. Like the nuclear genie itself, this amendment to the current laws on radioactivity in consumer goods cannot be put back into the bottle easily.
The arguments have even taken on a slightly absurd touch as study piles up upon study. According to one of them, living or working above the 15th floor or flying in an airplane exposes people to far more tritium than a watch ever could, even if it's broken.
Even eating bananas can expose consumers to more radiation than wearing a watch, says Sandro Schneider, because they contain radioactive potassium-40
The BMU argues that bananas contain only substance naturally-occurring radioactive material (NORM). But critics of the ministry say the amendment prohibits the import of NORM explicitly for the purpose of disposal - which, in one way or another, is exactly what most consumers do with bananas.
Author: Marton Radkai
Editor: Sam Edmonds