Sep 29th, 2019, 11:25 PM

Notre Dame, Notre Plomb

By Lydia Wiernik
Workers don decontamination suits inside Notre-Dame. Image Credit: Stephane de Sakutin/Pool via AP
Following the Fire at Notre Dame: How Much Lead Was Spewed Over Paris?

For many, April 15th, 2019 was a day of mourning. Shortly after 18:00 CEST, Notre-Dame de Paris was engulfed in flames, producing a cloud of smoke that obscured the burning roof of the Gothic cathedral. Millions watched in horror as the iconic spire collapsed.

The entire world seemed to flood the Internet with prayers for Notre-Dame. Viral videos showed Parisians singing hymns for their beloved cathedral. Many considered the loss one of humanity’s greatest. 

Within hours, the fire was under control. Within a day, millions of dollars were raised to fund its restoration: Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault pledged €100 million ($113 million) alone.

Notre-Dame is a most identifiable institution of Paris; the casualty of the fire served a direct blow to French culture as a whole. But the aftermath of the 15th of April may prove to be just as damaging.

Debris within the cathedral. Image credit: Stéphane de Sakutin

The flames that overtook the roof and spire also consumed 460 tons of lead that settled inconspicuously as dust in and around the cathedral. 

The levels of lead deposited near Notre-Dame were 1,300 times higher than deemed safe by the Agence Régionale de Santé Île de France (ARS).

Lead poisoning is known to cause a tendency towards aggression, I.Q. point loss, and seizures in young people, potentially leading to irreversible kidney and nervous system damage. And the government, in an effort to quell people’s concerns, has not been vocal about this danger. 

Extreme lead levels were detected within 48 hours of the fire. However, area primary schools, home to lead poisoning’s most vulnerable victims, were not tested until a month later. Even now, nearly 200 days after the fire, not every school close to the cathedral has been tested for lead. 

Who is most in danger? Children. 

Lead exposure poses the greatest risk to children less than six, pregnant women and nursing mothers. Those exposed to the highest levels of lead, though, are the workers inside the cathedral. For the first few days of reconstruction, workers were not wearing even basic protection, whereas now, they must wear decontamination suits and oxygen masks.

More than 6,000 children less than six live in areas that tested dangerously high for lead; nearby parks and plazas were found to contain over 60 times the health standard. This could mean permanent cognitive damage for those living, working or even regularly passing through these areas. 

A map of children under six within the most contaminated areas of Paris. Image credit:  The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, France; Regional Health Agency

Many tourists began to rethink their trips to Paris. Even native Parisians speculated on the safety of their city. 

French officials and lead experts dispel this newfound Paris paranoia: not all high lead levels in the 2,000-year-old city can be attributed to the cathedral. A conservator at the Culture Ministry, Antoine-Marie Préaut said, “There is lead elsewhere in Paris...every time there is construction here, we find some lead around it” (NYT).

Lead, in any amount, is dangerous. Even if you are not directly exposed, it is important to adopt habits to ensure your health and safety. 

Dr. Sean Palfrey is a professor of public health at Boston University and director of the Boston Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. To protect yourself, Dr. Palfrey suggests three crucial things. 

  1. Put your shoes in the foyer. Don’t track any residue, no matter how minimal, into your home.
  2. Use HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters on your vacuum. 
  3. Up your intake of iron and calcium - the minerals make your body less likely to absorb lead.

It’s true, Mr. Hemingway: “Paris is a very old city,” and one with a substantial amount of lead. However, there are practical measures to take that will prevent any further health damage. 

Noted in red on the map above, the AUP campus (and many students’ housing) is well within the areas of high lead concentration. This makes it even more important for students and faculty to follow Dr. Palfrey’s advice. 

Lead has existed in Paris for centuries and will continue to lie within the infrastructure of many of Paris’ beautiful architecture. But with self-awareness of hazards, one can thoroughly protect themselves from Notre-Dame’s fallout. 

You can buy HEPA filters here (for a student-friendly price)!