Tag Archive for: Monuments

Notre-Dame Cathedral Fire 2019

Notre-Dame Cathedral is one of France’s most famous landmarks. Located on Île de la Cité island in Paris, its construction took nearly 200 years and was completed in the 14th century. On April 15th, 2019, a fire ravaged its roof and its spire, spreading around huge amounts of lead. French President Emmanuel Macron then pledged to rebuild the cathedral before the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Contamination During and After the Fire

Prior to the fire, the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, undergoing renovations at the time, held approximately 460 tons of lead. It is estimated that 150kg of lead was released into the smoke during the fire. Following the accident, surface soil samples were collected within a 1 km radius of the cathedral, and air quality measurements were conducted at a station located 50km from the cathedral. The results indicated elevated levels of lead.

In the aftermath of the fire, the AFVS (Association of Families Victims of Lead Poisoning) embarked on a campaign to warn the population about the risks of lead exposure. Mathé Toullier, president of the association, and Annie Thébaud-Mony, a health sociologist, explained that few precautions were taken during and after the fire: on-site firefighters and police did not wear appropriate protection, nor did the employees mobilized afterward to clear the debris. Lead concentrations during the cleanup sometimes reached levels 100 to 1000 times higher than those recommended by the Public Health Regulations. A specialized decontamination design office commissioned by the Ministry of Culture also recommended the cathedral’s lockdown and decontamination, a project finally buried to the detriment of public health.

In a research article published in GeoHealth, Alexander Van Geen, a professor at Columbia University, states:
“Our surface soil data collected 9–10 months after the fire show that the population residing within 1 km and downwind of the fire was probably considerably more exposed to Pb fallout, albeit for a brief period, than indicated by measurements and surveys conducted by local authorities weeks to months later.”

Protecting Children: What Measures?

After the fire, few measures were taken to protect children from the risks of lead exposure: no health instructions in nurseries and schools, and it took months for lead blood level tests to be conducted in children.

As reported by the Basta! newspaper, during the summer following the fire, samples were taken in several schools at the request of families and associations. In certain playgrounds, lead levels were found to be 5 to 18 times higher than the average in the streets of the capital. The affected schools were temporarily closed for cleaning of the premises.

In children, 50% of ingested lead is absorbed, compared to 5 to 10% in adults. Children are particularly vulnerable because they often put their hands to their mouths, and also because their nervous and skeletal systems are still developing. Lead exposure can create behavioral disorders, hearing and growth troubles, leading to abdominal pain, fatigue, memory loss, learning difficulties, anorexia, sleep disorders, and anxiety.

A Reconstruction that Raises Concerns

President Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to rebuild the cathedral before the opening of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Donations poured in from all around the world to fund the monument’s reconstruction.

On April 15th, 2024, five years after the fire, members of the AFVS association along with other activists gathered in front of the cathedral to protest against the presence of lead in the monument’s reconstruction. Indeed, despite health risks, the government decided that the cathedral’s roof and spire should be rebuilt identically, using lead.

This decision appears perplexing on multiple fronts. Firstly, people are aware of the toxicity of lead. Secondly, less hazardous alternatives such as zinc could readily serve as substitutes. Thirdly, given the likely lead exposure and potential health impact caused by the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, this decision seems even more puzzling. Haven’t we learned anything from this? It’s ironic, especially because the French Social Security system recognizes lead poisoning as a work-related illness!

Sources: GeoHealth, Santé Publique France, ActuParis, Basta!