Key labour union, environmental groups want Notre-Dame site sealed over lead fears

A top French labour union and environmental health groups have banded together to demand Notre-Dame Cathedral be covered and sealed after the fire that destroyed its roof, deeming it an ongoing source of lead pollution.

Dominique Faget, AFP | Annie Thébaud-Mony, spokesperson for the Henri Pézenat Association, speaks to reporters in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral on July 5, 2019.

The April 15 blaze that destroyed the cathedral's spire and its roof also melted massive quantities of lead, toxic dust from which was dispersed into the air in the French capital and deposited on the ground.

“The 440 tonnes of lead that went up in smoke during the fire represent more than four times the annual lead emissions in the atmosphere for all of France,” Annie Thébaud-Mony, a researcher and spokeswoman for the environmental health group Association Henri Pézerat, told reporters Monday on the square in front of the heavily damaged cathedral.

Families of tourists could be seen, surreally, snapping souvenir photos on the square, apparently oblivious to the press conference under way that was discussing the toxic dust embedded in the pavement underfoot.

Thébaud-Mony’s association, alongside the CGT labour union and the Association for the Families of Victims of Lead Poisoning, wants to see the 850-year-old monument sealed off. The containment process would entail enveloping the building in its entirety – including its iconic twin towers – in airtight plastic sheeting draped over a giant metal scaffolding. Slightly dropping the air pressure within the cathedral-sized tent would then work to keep lead particles from leaking outside while the site’s interior is fully decontaminated, the groups say. The same technique was used at a nearby Sorbonne campus, across the Seine in Paris’s fifth arrondissement (district), while the university was being cleansed of asbestos.

>> In pictures: Notre-Dame cathedral ravaged by fire

“It’s the only way,” Thébaud-Mony said of obscuring the familiar stone belltowers with sheeting. “The whole building was completely caught up in the fire, in the smoke, and so surely there is lead dust in all of the sculptures, et cetera.”

She said variations in the lead-level readings taken around the cathedral show occasional peaks of pollution that suggest the site continues to release toxic dust. “There has necessarily been some re-release [of particles] with activity on the site, activity in the street and the wind.”

Fears of lead contamination around the cathedral and well beyond its central Paris home on the Île de la Cité have grown as lead readings taken since April are gradually made public.

Schools closed

At the end of July, two schools in the sixth arrondissement southwest of the cathedral – and therefore downwind of the blaze on the night of April 15 – were shuttered over lead fears. The kindergarten and primary school on the rue Saint-Benoît – a side street around the corner from Saint-Germain-des-Prés' famed Café de Flore – were closed down after readings showed levels of lead contamination above 7,000 microgrammes per square metre, 100 times the 70-microgramme-per-square-metre threshold above which taking action is advised. Experts say there is no safe level of exposure to lead, which is a neurotoxin. Young children, and their developing nervous systems, are particularly vulnerable.

“The big problem is that, when you don’t seek out how much lead is in the blood, you don’t find it – because lead is insidious,” Mathé Toullier, of the Association for the Families of Victims of Lead Poisoning, said Monday. “You can’t see it, you can’t feel it; it doesn’t initially present patent signs.”

But lead’s noxious effects on children’s intellectual capacity, male fertility and pregnancy are well known, she said. After lingering in the bloodstream, Toullier explained, lead is stored in the bones for decades, with the potential of being leached back into the bloodstream during, for instance, a pregnancy.

“When it comes out again during pregnancy, that’s it, the baby risks being contaminated and it goes to the subsequent generation.”

Toullier noted that workers were seen toiling at Notre-Dame without protective face masks. “We’re the ones informing the workers here [at Notre-Dame] of what to do,” Toullier said of her association. “'Don’t bring shoes or work uniforms home' to avoid the risk of bringing home all the dust, to protect the children. It’s pretty absurd.”

Work suspended

Indeed, on July 25, the work site at the cathedral was suspended over lead concerns. Health and safety authorities reported that decontamination practices at the site were insufficient for the job at hand and that precautions were not being applied systematically. The regional prefecture announced on Friday that work would resume gradually after new decontamination units are installed next week, but the CGT union says that timeline is too short to guarantee workers’ safety.

“There is a source of pollution here, alas, it’s Notre Dame. It needs to be contained, the entirety of the building, to prevent it from continuing this pollution,” Benoît Martin, who heads the CGT union for Paris, told reporters in the shadow of the cathedral on Monday.

The union leader catalogued a long list of workers potentially affected by Notre-Dame lead contamination who, he said, should consider submitting to blood-lead tests. They include not only the workers directly tending to rebuilding Notre-Dame but also the police officers at the prefecture across the street and guarding the monument; employees of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital across the square; the more than 400 firefighters who tamed the blaze on April 15; journalists who covered the blaze; street cleaners; garbage collectors; staff at neighbouring schools, crèches, cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops; as well as the bouquinistes who tend the bookstalls on the Seine's riverside quays.

Martin said public emotion and political pressure in the aftermath of the inferno was, perhaps understandably, focused on donations and reconstruction. French President Emmanuel Macron stirred controversy when he pledged the ambitious reconstruction timeline of five years, suggesting France’s erstwhile most-visited tourist attraction could reopen as early as 2024 – the year Paris is set to host the summer Olympic Games. But Martin said the priority, as soon as the embers cooled, should have been decontamination.

“If the calendar for Notre-Dame’s reconstruction is delayed a few months, that isn’t a problem to us,” Martin said. “What’s important to us isn’t the calendar some people want to go quickly. One has to take the time to treat the problems one after the other: contain, decontaminate, rebuild.”

New readings due

The collective of labour representatives and environmental groups is also demanding that lead contamination measurements be mapped rigorously and updated regularly. Furthermore, it wants the Hôtel Dieu hospital to become a monitoring centre for residents and workers affected by the lead pollution, one providing support over the long term and centralising information on the patients contaminated.

After sounding the alarm over possible lead contamination and condemning a lack of information disseminated in the wake of the disaster, the environmental activist group Robin des Bois last week filed a lawsuit accusing authorities of deliberately imperiling people’s health and failing to assist those endangered by lead pollution from Notre-Dame.

The City of Paris has published a series of documents and lead measurement data from some of the schools neighbouring Notre-Dame on its website. It is due to release new lead pollution readings on Tuesday.

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