Toxic fall­out plagues area around cathe­dral in Paris


The April fire that en­gulfed Notre Dame con­tam­i­nated the cathe­dral site with clouds of toxic dust and ex­posed nearby schools, day care cen­ters, pub­lic parks and other parts of Paris to alarm­ing lev­els of lead.

The lead dust came from the cathe­dral’s in­cin­er­ated roof and spire, which con­tained about 460 tons of the dan­ger­ous metal.

Five months af­ter the fire, French au­thor­i­ties have re­fused to fully dis­close the re­sults of their test­ing for lead con­tam­i­na­tion, sow­ing pub­lic con­fu­sion, while is­su­ing re­as­sur­ing state­ments in­tended to play down the risks.

Their de­lays and de­nials have opened au­thor­i­ties to ac­cu­sa­tions that they put re­con­struc­tion of the cathe­dral – which Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron has pledged to com­plete in five years – ahead of the health of thou­sands of peo­ple.

A com­pre­hen­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tion by The New York Times has helped fill out an emerg­ing pic­ture of a failed of­fi­cial re­sponse. It found sig­nif­i­cant lapses by French au­thor­i­ties in alert­ing the pub­lic to health risks, even as their un­der­stand­ing of the danger be­came clearer.

The April 15 blaze nearly de­stroyed the 850-year-old cathe­dral and brought im­me­di­ate scru­tiny to whether ad­e­quate fire pro­tec­tions had been in place to safe­guard a gem of Gothic ar­chi­tec­ture vis­ited by 13 mil­lion peo­ple a year.

The cathe­dral’s roof and spire suc­cumbed to the flames that night and col­lapsed. But the bil­low­ing smoke car­ried its own per­ils. It con­tained mas­sive quan­ti­ties of lead, ac­cord­ing to test re­sults in con­fi­den­tial re­ports and oth­ers re­leased by the govern­ment.

The Times’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion drew from con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ments, in­clud­ing warn­ings by la­bor in­spec­tors, a po­lice re­port and pre­vi­ously undis­closed lead mea­sure­ments by the Cul­ture Min­istry.

The doc­u­ments, as well as scores of in­ter­views, make clear that French au­thor­i­ties had in­di­ca­tions that lead ex­po­sure could be a grave prob­lem within 48 hours of the fire.

But it took a month be­fore city of­fi­cials con­ducted the first lead tests at a school close to Notre Dame. Even to­day, city and re­gional health of­fi­cials have not tested ev­ery school in prox­im­ity to the cathe­dral.

The tests showed lev­els of lead dust above the French reg­u­la­tory stan­dard for build­ings host­ing chil­dren in at least 18 day care cen­ters, preschools and pri­mary schools.

In dozens of other pub­lic spa­ces, like plazas and streets, au­thor­i­ties found lead lev­els up to 60 times over the safety stan­dard.

The high­est con­tam­i­na­tion lev­els, re­vealed in con­fi­den­tial Cul­ture Min­istry doc­u­ments ob­tained by The Times, were at dif­fer­ent spots in, or near, the cathe­dral site. Au­thor­i­ties failed to clean the area in the im­me­di­ate aftermath of the fire and waited four months to fin­ish a full de­con­tam­i­na­tion of the neigh­bor­hood.

The Cul­ture Min­istry, which is re­spon­si­ble for clean­ing the site and re­build­ing Notre Dame, also failed or re­fused to en­force safety pro­ce­dures for work­ers, leav­ing them ex­posed to lead lev­els more than a thou­sand times the ac­cepted stan­dard.

“Th­ese are as­tro­nom­i­cal lev­els, and the at­ti­tude of health au­thor­i­ties is in­ex­pli­ca­ble,” said An­nie Thébaud-Mony, a prom­i­nent pub­lic health ex­pert in France, who has been lead­ing pub­lic calls for more trans­parency in the aftermath of the fire.


Work­ers in pro­tec­tive suits carry out de­con­tam­i­na­tion op­er­a­tions Sept. 2 near the Notre Dame Cathe­dral in Paris. French au­thor­i­ties’ re­fusal to fully dis­close the re­sults of test­ing for con­tam­i­nants has sowed con­fu­sion and anx­i­ety in Paris.

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