Notre Dame labelled 'toxic waste site' due to lead concerns

Caroline FloydMeteorologist

Lead in the area is up to 65 times above safe levels.

A French environmental group is calling the fire-ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral a 'toxic waste' site amid concerns over lead contamination at the site.

An estimated 300 tonnes of the toxic metal melted in the fire that destroyed the iconic structure's roof and steeple in April, coating nearby areas with poisonous dust. Paris police issued statement Thursday confirming that very high levels of lead had been found in the area surrounding the cathedral -- between 32 and 65 times the limit recommended by French health authorities.

The police statement said that while dust and soil sample returned unsafe levels of lead contamination, there was no indication that air quality in the area had been impacted. They also stated that the risk from soil contamination was minimal, as the areas affected were currently blocked off to the public, and the danger from the lead would only be an issue in the case of "repeated ingestion."

The group Robin des Bois disagrees with that assessment, however, and said in a statement the cathedral site must be decontaminated before reconstruction work begins.

"This sanitation operation is a prerequisite for reconstruction," said the group, asking that officials launch a call for tenders for decontamination of "what, unfortunately, can also be provisionally regarded as a brownfield."

Professor Michael Anderson, of the University of Manchester, called the pollution spread by the fire "very extensive" in a letter published by Robin des Bois in late April, and suggests that all of Paris may be impacted by the pollution.

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"This is unlikely to be a problem of air pollution but of solid particles on the ground," said Anderson. "When it will be carried on the water races. They should be aware of what they are doing for the time being."

The Robin des Bois group recommends all charred wood also be treated as hazardous waste, as it came in contact with lead sheets, and was treated with fungicide. They also raised concerns that weather conditions throughout the reconstruction period will allow dust and contaminated particles to further disperse through the city.

In the immediate wake of the fire, police officials had cautioned those living nearby to clean surfaces with a damp cloth, and suggested pregnant women and children wash their hands frequently.

Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body over time, often months or years, according to the Mayo Clinic. Children under 6 are particularly susceptible; lead poisoning in children can lead to developmental delay and seizures. In adults, lead poisoning can result in health problems like high blood pressure, memory problems, and miscarriage.

French president Macron estimated reconstruction of the cathedral would take 5 years, while others suggest rebuilding will take up to a decade.

Sources: Paris Police | Robin des Bois | Guardian | Mayo Clinic |