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Lead contamination risk near Notre-Dame cathedral

Police advise residents to clean with wet wipes after finding lead particles released by cathedral fire

by Laura Howes
April 30, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 18


Editor's note

On Aug. 27, 2020, this story was updated to indicate that the sentence in italics below was taken from the Guardian. Read more.

Credit: Thierry Mallet/SIPA/Newscom
Lead that coated Notre-Dame Cathedral's spire and roof framing was released to the environment when the cathedral burned last month.

On the night of April 15, horrified onlookers in Paris and across the world watched as fire devastated the city’s iconic Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral. Immediately after the fire, cathedral restoration was the focus, with people pledging millions of euros for the effort. It was not until April 27 that the Parisian police issued a warning to local residents. Tests by the police’s central laboratory found high levels of neurotoxic lead dust in the immediate area around the church.

Concerns about the lead-clad spire and cathedral framing had been voiced much earlier by the environmental advocacy group Robin des Bois. But the original advice was that the 300 metric tons of cladding would have melted and fallen into the main building.

“I, like everybody else, just assumed the lead would melt and pour all the way down to the bottom of the cathedral,” says Mike Anderson, a materials chemist at the UK’s University of Manchester. “But it quickly became apparent that the vaulted ceiling is just below the roof and essentially stops the lead from falling out of the roof space.”

Trapped close to the blaze, which burned at over 800 °C, some of the lead would have begun to vaporize and oxidize, feeding more heat into the reaction and accelerating the vaporization and oxidation, Anderson says. He is concerned that the focus on cathedral restoration is clouding people’s attention. “At exactly the same time as a cathedral burnt in Paris, there was a chemical disaster in the center,” he says.

Contaminated areas around the cathedral such as the cathedral gardens are closed. Police suggest local residents use wet wipes to remove dust from surfaces and furniture and that anyone concerned should consult their doctor. The police did not suggest how to dispose of used wipes. "There have been no reports of acute lead poisoning since the inferno," according to the Guardian.

Health authorities plan to protect cathedral restoration workers and conduct longer-term testing of exposed areas. Airparif, which monitors air quality in Paris, said air pollution did not exceed normal levels the day after the fire, but it is still conducting follow up analysis on the levels of lead. Normally, airborne lead levels in Paris are at the limit of detection of Airparif’s equipment.



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Peter Canfield (May 1, 2019 6:18 PM)
Yes, as soon as I saw the densely opaque yellow smoke I suspected this was essentially a mix of Lead oxides. Being released in large quantities. I’m very pleased the earnings have been issued
Elizabeth O'Brien, Lead Advisor, The LEAD Group charity, Australia (May 2, 2019 4:59 AM)
It is surprising that the Police, rather than Health or Environment Officers or those looking after the Occupational Health of firefighters and those now tasked with cleaning up the dustfall and debris from the Notre Dame fire, are advising residents clean up with wet wipes. It's good that the writer notes: "The police did not suggest how to dispose of used wipes." That's an understated way of saying what I believe: using wet wipes to clean up lead contamination is the most environmentally irresponsible way to deal with lead dust because it creates a mountain of contaminated waste. And of course, you can't clean lead dust off carpet, drapes or soft furnishings with wet wipes anyway - they need special detergent and equipment. Wet-cleaning to be sure is what is needed for hard surfaces but residents should be advised to use a good detergent and lots of water-rinsing of reusable cloths and mops. Lead exposure from this fire can only be detected by blood lead testing so hopefully everyone in the vicinity is being offered a referral to a pathology clinic for blood lead testing and the Public Health and Worker Safety authorities are collating and analysing the results and disseminating good advice on clean-up of lead dust contamination and cover-up or top-soiling of lead soil contamination for the lead-safety of children and pets in the area.
Paul E Eckler (May 2, 2019 1:14 PM)
"Lead that coated the spire and roof framing would have vaporized"

What is the vapor pressure of lead? It seems far more likely that accumulated lead corrosion products were dispersed in the air by the fire updraft.

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