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Lead Contamination: Is Paris Safe?

Notre Dame on Fire

In case you missed the latest news about the April fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, it seems the risk of lead contamination from the 440 tons of incinerated lead in the roof and spire was not clearly communicated to the public in a timely manner, causing a bit of a panic in locals and visitors, especially those with small children. So is Paris safe to visit? How close can you get to the cathedral without risk? And why hasn’t the English-language press  picked up the other major lead contamination site, the Gare d’Austerlitz train station, revealed in the French press two days ago? 

A Fire in the Heart of Paris

The much-loved, eight-centuries-old Notre Dame de Paris was the most-visited place in Paris before the fire in April. It’s also the official geographical center of Paris (there’s even a little bronze plaque in the square in front of the cathedral that says “ground zero”). So it’s no surprise that this lead contamination scandal is gaining as much attention as the original fire. The New York Times did a detailed interactive story about their investigation into the issue (you can read a shorter summary version here). 

The public spaces immediately around Notre Dame and schools in the immediate area have been closed for decontamination, and tests of workers in nearby cafés and children who had already started classes (before the alarm was raised) have not shown widespread lead poisoning, so municipal authorities are not yet requiring everyone get tested. The workers at the site are another story, with reports stating they had no special precautions to ensure they weren’t contaminated. For those of us who live in Paris and anyone visiting, the question remains: are we at risk? 

Unlike asbestos, lead falls to the ground, so it’s not just floating around in the air we breathe. But where it fell is still a matter that hasn’t been definitively answered. There were hundreds of people (myself included) standing on the quays watching the cathedral as it burned that night. Were our heads and shoulders covered in lead dust as it fell to the ground? And how far did the contamination spread? The New York Times article shows a map of where lead has been measured in high levels, but there are doubts as to whether that’s a result of Notre Dame’s fire, because there were no tests before the fire to make comparisons. 

Paris is an old city full of lead. When you sell property here, you’re required by law to present official reports of termite and lead inspections. Almost every old Haussmann-era building (late 19th century) has wrought iron balconies that were painted with lead-based paints. Most residents simply add more coats of paint instead of dealing with the complex and costly process of having the lead professionally removed. It’s best not to “disturb” the lead, which flakes as it ages. 

Lead Contamination at the Gare d’Austerlitz Train Station

Which brings us to another worrying source of massive lead contamination: the Gare d’Austerlitz train station, not yet reported in the English-language press. For the past two years, this century-old train station on the Left Bank next to the Jardin des Plantes has been undergoing massive restoration works, including removing lead and asbestos from the support beams of the Grand Halle, a 26-meter high, 650-meter long canopy that covers the tracks. Two days ago the local daily newspaper Le Parisien revealed that inspectors found “extremely alarming” levels of lead throughout the train station’s public areas, which have remained open during the renovation works. Apparently the scaffolding and other protections that were supposed to contain the contamination have not worked.

Shockingly, the levels of lead measured on September 19th in the main waiting area under the Grand Halle shows “revealed a rate of 17,094 micrograms per square meter, while the regulatory threshold is 1,000 μg/m2.” The benches next to the Relay news/snack shop has more than 25,000μg/m2, and the brooms used by the janitors has 37,000μg/m². The French government has immediately halted the work, and the contractor responsible for the contamination is at the center of the investigation. 

How to Stay Safe

In the meantime, people are understandably worried. While any level of lead is considered unsafe for small children, experts say that the presence of lead doesn’t necessarily mean they will be contaminated. You would have to physically touch a contaminated surface and then put your hands in your mouth to ingest enough lead to show up on tests. Obviously with small children who love to be on the ground, it can happen. If you’re visiting Paris, be vigilant about washing hands if you’ve been sitting in the squares or parks around Notre Dame. Honestly, you should do this anyway no matter where you are in Paris; the sidewalks, parks and public transport have all sorts of ickiness. Try not to touch your face or your food without first washing your hands with soap and hot water (not just Purell). For those who live near Notre Dame or Gare d’Austerlitz, a thorough cleaning with a wet mop and a vacuum with HEPA filter is a good precaution, and make it a habit to remove your shoes when you come into your home. You’ll find more suggestions on avoiding lead poisoning here

If you decide you’re willing to accept there’s possibly a risk, and want to visit the Cathedral anyway, consider also visiting the neighboring cafés and shops who have been suffering 60-70% fewer clients since the fire. The lead issue only adds to their stress, but so far authorities haven’t found any reason to close them in the name of public safety. 

In summary: do come to Paris, but take extra precautions to keep your hands and shoes clean if you’re walking around the Cathedral’s immediate surroundings. 

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