Notre-Dame Restoration Delayed Due to Lead Poisoning Concerns

Work is set to continue next week with more stringent safety protocols, decontamination units

notre-dame cleanup
A worker sprays a gel on the ground to absorb lead as he takes part in a clean-up operation at Saint Benoit school near Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris during a decontamination operation on August 8, 2019. MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

Restoration of the razed Notre-Dame Cathedral has been delayed until at least August 19 due to ongoing concerns over lead particles released when the Parisian landmark’s spire and roof collapsed.

As Agence France-Presse reports, officials placed clean-up efforts on hold in mid-July after testing revealed high levels of lead contamination throughout the church and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Although authorities had previously maintained that lead residue from the April 15 inferno posed no poisoning risk to workers and local residents, further investigation, as well as a lawsuit accusing the government of “deliberately putting people in danger” by failing to limit exposure to “toxic fallout,” led officials to acknowledge the insufficient nature of existing containment measures and close down two nearby schools exhibiting hazardous lead levels.

Per the Associated Press, experts have since implemented a number of more stringent prevention processes aimed at de-toxifying schools and neighborhoods and establishing a decontamination zone for individuals working at Notre-Dame.

To neutralize the lead poisoning threat, workers clad in protective gear are spraying streets using high pressure water jets filled with chemical agents and spreading lead-absorbing gel onto public benches, lights and other fixtures. At the two closed-down schools, a separate Associated Press report notes, workers are spraying an adhesive onto the playground floor, fixing lead particles in place so they can safely remove the top layer of surface material.

Originally, AFP explains, officials had set a delayed clean-up date of this week. Now, however, authorities have pushed the resumption of restoration efforts to August 19, at which point new equipment, including decontamination units, will be operational and ready to stop “any release of polluting elements to the outside.”

“With new safety protocols and the delivery of two new decontamination units, the quality of lead decontamination of workers, machinery and equipment will be optimized,” Paris prefect Michel Cadot said, as quoted by the Wall Street Journals Lee Harris.

Feargus O’Sullivan reports for City Lab that around 450 tons of lead melted during the unprecedented blaze, releasing particles that can be toxic if inhaled or consumed via food and drink. Per leaked documents published by Mediapart in July, various locations surrounding Notre-Dame have lead contamination levels between 500 to 800 times the official safe level.

Lead poisoning, which is especially harmful to children and pregnant women, can lead to miscarriages and developmental issues in unborn babies. Symptoms range from high blood pressure to memory and hearing loss.

The level of lead considered potentially dangerous is 70 micrograms per square meter; at the Sainte-Catherine primary school, tests revealed 698 micrograms, and at isolated locations including school playgrounds and windowsills, authorities took measurements of more than 1,000 micrograms.

The AP reports that Paris’ regional health agency tested 162 children who live near or attend school by Notre-Dame for lead poisoning. Reportedly, one boy is actively “at risk” and will require medical monitoring, while 16 others will be monitored as a precautionary measure.

Robin des Bois is the environmentalist group behind the lawsuit alleging health agencies and government officials mishandled the situation. French daily Le Monde spoke with the group's president, Jacky Bonnemains, who said that in the months following the April fire, Robin des Bois had “accumulated enough evidence of the inertia of the public authorities to decide to take legal action.”

For now, Deutsche Welle notes, authorities have declined locals’ requests to cover the entirety of Notre-Dame in protective cladding that would contain the spread of lead particles.

“From a technical and financial point of view, such a move would be an incredibly complex decision to carry out,” Paris’ deputy mayor, Emmanuel Gregoire, stated. Officials have, however, pledged that schools will not reopen until the lead threat has been completely eradicated.

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