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Environmental Consequences of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Blaze
Back in April 2019 the world awoke to news footage of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames – it was not known whether or not fire-fighters would be able to save the Cathedral from total collapse. In the end, they were able to restrict the damage to the roof and spire, such that President Macron was able to announce plans, within days, to fully restore the Cathedral.
Three months later, reports have emerged of a worrying threat to local residents: lead poisoning. The roof and spire contained several hundred tonnes of lead cladding and the fire is thought to have reached temperatures of around 800C, resulting in a massive release of toxic lead particles into the air. These particles tend to settle on surfaces and in the soil. Lead-contaminated soil can pose a risk through direct ingestion, uptake in vegetable gardens, or tracking into homes.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a standard for lead in the ambient air of 0.15 µg/m3 averaged over a three month period. It has been widely reported that surrounding areas have registered levels of lead contamination ranging between 500 and 800 times the official safe level.
Lead exposure can have serious health consequences, and especially for children. Children’s innate curiosity and their age-appropriate hand-to-mouth behaviour result in lead particles getting into their mouths and swallowing lead-containing or lead-coated objects, such as contaminated soil or dust. Moreover, young children are particularly vulnerable because they absorb four to five times as much ingested lead as adults from a given source. The unborn foetus is also particularly vulnerable.
Even at ‘lower levels of exposure’ that cause no obvious symptoms, and that previously were considered safe, lead is now known to produce a spectrum of injury across multiple body systems. In particular, lead can affect children’s brain development resulting in reduced IQ, behavioural changes such as reduced attention span and increased antisocial behaviour, and reduced educational attainment. As lead exposure increases, the range and severity of symptoms and effects also increases. The neurological and behavioural effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.
In June the regional health agency in Paris recommended blood tests for children under seven years of age and pregnant women who live near Notre Dame as they are especially vulnerable to health problems from lead poisoning and exposure. The public health authorities have also closed two local schools in Paris’s sixth arrondissement and halted renovation work on the Cathedral, pending further investigation by environmental agencies. The Paris authorities have ordered a deep clean and removal of hazardous substances from nearby schools, before the children return for the Autumn term. Tests are continuing at other schools. Lead removal work at the cathedral itself is set to resume next week with stricter safety procedures. Roads and public plazas around Notre Dame have been closed to the public since mid-April, after exceptionally high levels of lead were recorded – they remain closed.
An environmental group has filed a lawsuit against the city’s authorities for criminal negligence in not alerting residents sooner. The long-term public health effects of chronic lead exposure on children in low-income urban areas is a topic of much ongoing debate. The effects of a mass exposure on children near Notre-Dame are difficult to anticipate.
What can be done to prevent exposure to lead and avoid lead poisoning in general?
- Create physical barriers between living/play areas and lead sources. Until environmental clean-up is completed, you should clean and isolate all sources of lead.
- Regularly wash children’s hands and toys. Hands and toys can become contaminated from household dust or exterior soil.
- Regularly wet-mop floors and wet-wipe windows and doors. Because household dust is a major source of lead, you should wet-mop floors and wet-wipe horizontal surfaces every week. Windowsills and walls can contain high levels of leaded dust. They should be kept clean. If feasible, windows and doors should be kept shut.
- Take off shoes/boots when entering buildings to prevent bringing lead-contaminated soil and dirt in from outside.
- Prevent children from playing in open soil – if possible, provide them with covered sandboxes. Plant grass on areas of bare soil or cover the soil with mulch or wood chips, if possible. Until the bare soil is covered, move play areas away from bare soil and away from the sides of the house/nursery/school.
- Make sure you do not use lead based paints where children have access.