Children close to Notre Dame Cathedral show high levels of lead

Two children tested have ‘lead poisoning’ after 400 tonnes vaporised in April fire in Paris

Reconstruction work on Notre Dame Cathedral was suspended on July 25th because of concerns about lead contamination. Photograph: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA

Blood samples from 175 children living within several kilometres of Notre Dame Cathedral show abnormal levels of lead in 10 per cent of cases, the Paris regional health authority ARS has announced.

At least 400 tonnes of lead in the cathedral’s roof and steeple were vaporised in the fire on April 15th, four times the amount of lead released into the air in the entire country during an average year.

Since the fire, blood lead measurements in 18 of 175 children tested “surpass the vigilance level, two significantly”, said Aurélien Rousseau, the regional director of ARS.

In those two cases, levels were higher than 50 micrograms per litre of blood, signifying lead poisoning. An investigation showed that lead was present in the home of one victim before the fire, Mr Rousseau said.


The other child with lead poisoning attended summer activities at a school in the Rue Saint-Benoît, until it was closed down on July 25th. High concentrations of lead have also been found in schools in the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts and the Rue de Verneuil.

The other 16 children registered levels surpassing the “vigiliance threshold” of 25 micrograms per litre of blood.


Jacky Bonnemains, the head of the Robin des Bois environmental group, which filed a lawsuit for official negligence on July 26th, said the ARS statement was meaningless, because there is no safe threshold of lead, especially in children.

Exposure to lead affects digestion, the kidneys, nervous and reproductive systems and can cause irreversible brain damage.

A group of trade unions and associations this week demanded that the Notre Dame reconstruction site be entirely enclosed, that authorities provide a detailed map of the pattern of contamination, and that a special clinic for lead contamination be set up at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital adjacent to the cathedral.

ARS released a cursory map of central Paris using coloured dots to show concentrations of lead. It indicates a swath of the 5th, 6th, and 7th districts on the left bank of the Seine may have been affected.

Levels up to 800 times the authorised level of 1,000 micrograms per square metre have been found in streets near the cathedral, according to the investigative website Mediapart.

This isn't the same as asbestos, which stays in the air. Lead falls. The important thing is to remove it, not confine it

"This type of work site, whether contaminated by lead or asbestos, is supposed to be enclosed, and decontamination takes place inside the enclosure," Annie Thébaud-Mony, a director of research at Inserm, the national institute for health and medical research, told RTL radio. "The outside must also be decontaminated . . . All the stones of Notre Dame have been permeated with lead."

‘Glass bubble’

Anne Souyris, head of public health at Paris town hall, said Notre Dame "will not be put under a glass bubble . . . This isn't the same as asbestos, which stays in the air. Lead falls. The important thing is to remove it, not confine it."

Reconstruction work was suspended on July 25th because of concerns about lead contamination. It is tentatively scheduled to resume, with stronger protective measures, on August 12th.

Ms Souyris said two new methods will be used to decontaminate the area in and around the cathedral. A film or gel will be spread on surfaces, left to dry for three days, and then be peeled away slowly. Lead particles are meant to stick to the film.

The other, more rapid method, involves the high pressure application of surfactants or surface agents to dilute and emulsify the lead. This is then vacuumed up and the contaminated liquid is safely disposed of.

“Why wasn’t this done at the beginning?” Ms Thébaud-Mony asked. “Why did they have to wait more than three months, while many people were exposed to lead?”

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor