Notre Dame firefighters should be tested for lead, say campaigners

Those who battled cathedral blaze could have been exposed to toxic substances, say experts

Firefighters who battled the Notre Dame cathedral inferno as well as neighbouring residents and those who watched the fire from the streets should be tested for exposure to toxic materials, campaign groups have said.

Experts consulted by the environmental group Robin des Bois have warned that the flames that destroyed the roof and spire of the medieval edifice sent at least 300 tonnes of lead into the air above Paris.

As well as the danger of lead particles, the organisation warned on Friday that other toxic substances, including those used to treat wooden beams destroyed in the fire, could have contaminated the cathedral site and surrounding area including the River Seine.

“We need a rigorous programme of analyses with a detailed map and regular follow-ups,” Jacky Bonnemains, the head of Robin des Bois, told journalists. He said the Paris authorities should enlarge the area to be tested to include the Tuileries gardens, private homes in west Paris and even the Elysée palace.

Bonnemains said the authorities were not fulfilling their responsibilities. “Until the debris [from the fire] has been cleared and taken somewhere secure to be stored, the site will remain a source of pollution.”

The group has said the site of the fire “might be temporarily considered an industrial wasteland” and urged authorities to decontaminate it before moving ahead with a competition to design a new spire.

It recommended that “all the firefighters involved in fighting the blaze and those who urgently saved antique objects should be subject to tests for lead in the coming weeks”, adding that the country’s health authorities should engage in the long-term testing of local parks and gardens.

The warning came after Paris authorities warned that lead levels on the ground immediately around Notre Dame cathedral were 65 times above the safe limit.

Police issued a statement saying there was no risk of toxic inhalation from the air and that the area of high lead levels immediately around the cathedral was closed to the public.

Flames and smoke rise from the fire at Notre Dame cathedral on 15 April 2019.
Flames and smoke rise from the fire at Notre Dame cathedral on 15 April 2019. Photograph: Thierry Mallet/AP

Robin des Bois has written to several government ministers as well as city and regional authorities pointing out its concerns and calling for the clean-up of the Notre Dame site to avoid the spread of toxic substances.

It also released a statement from Michael Anderson, professor of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester, expressing his concern about “the levels of lead pollution” following the Notre Dame fire.

“The pollution spread by fire is very extensive. Contrary to what I hear being reported that the lead was contained at the cathedral, actually almost all the lead has been dispersed across Paris,” he said.

“It is really important that the streets of Paris under the lead plume are analysed for lead as quickly as possible and before it starts to rain. This is unlikely a problem of air pollution, but of solid particles on the ground.

“When it rains, any lead particles will be carried into the water courses. People should be advised to be careful what they touch for a while in Paris until the situation is properly assessed.”

Paris has been subject to violent rainstorms since Anderson’s letter of 29 April.

Temporary tarpaulins cover the roof of the cathedral to protect it from rain damage.
Temporary tarpaulins cover the roof of the cathedral to protect it from rain damage. Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images

Annie Thébaud-Mony, of the Henri Pézerat health, work and environment association, said she was particularly worried about workers, while Dr Mady Denantes, a GP, said: “All lead is bad and this pollution needs all our vigilance.”

On Friday, French MPs were presented with a hastily drawn-up law overseeing work to restore the cathedral which would allow plans to be speeded through the normally slow planning regulations.

Bonnemains said approving the law would make MPs “complicit in the putting in danger of people’s lives”. He said his association was looking at ways to block the law.


Kim Willsher in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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