Notre-Dame pollution clean-up starts amid warnings of future contamination

Workers install barriers around the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in preparation for lead pollution clean-up operations in the surrounding streets, 13 August 2019.
Workers install barriers around the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in preparation for lead pollution clean-up operations in the surrounding streets, 13 August 2019. Reuters/Charles Platiau

Workers began cleaning lead particles from streets around the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on Tuesday, but environmental groups say the clean-up alone will not erase the risk of further contamination of fine particles released during this year’s fire.


Clean-up crews blocked off streets around the Notre-Dame Cathedral in order to carry out decontamination works expected to last three to four weeks.

The process involves workers wearing head-to-toe white hazmat suits spraying blue-green gel onto roads and sidewalks to absorb lead particles, which will dry before being removed with high-pressure hoses.

Annie Thévaud-Mony, sociologist

Officials have been slowly facing up to the extent to which wind spread potentially harmful particles into the neighbourhoods around the cathedral as some 400 tonnes of lead melted in the fire that swept its roof and steeple last 15 April.

“The authorities are finally understanding there is an urgency not to leave people exposed to the pollution, but at the same time, I am upset they waited so long,” says sociologist Annie Thévaud-Mony.

Thévaud-Mondy researches toxic contaminations in workplaces and runs the Henri Pézerat Association, an advocacy group for workplace and environmental health that warned in April that authorities were understating the scale of the pollution released by the fire.

“The amount of lead dust on the site and in the surrounding area is almost four times the amount spread in all of the French territory in a whole year,” she says.

Pollution far above safe levels

Testing has revealed levels of lead contamination in buildings as far as a kilometre from the cathedral were far above safe levels of under 70 micrograms per square metre, with some schools and day-cares showed isolated readings of more than 1,000 micrograms per square metre on playgrounds or windowsills.

In recent weeks, two schools running summer day-care programmes on the Rue Saint-Benoit in the nearby sixth arrondissement were closed in late July, and renovation of the cathedral itself was halted in early August over concerns that workers could be exposed to potentially harmful lead particles.

Critics accused the city of failing to notify the public about the worrying results of the tests, and environmental group Robin des Bois filed a lawsuit alleging officials did not do enough to contain the contamination.

Concerns over future contamination

As the clean-up gets underway, there is a lingering concern that it will take much more before pollution ceases to be a concern.

Officials are determined to resume renovation work inside the cathedral next week, rejecting calls from the CGT trade union for the structure to be covered with protective cladding to contain the particles.

“It’s difficult to saw how this cleaning could solve the problem if they don’t do some kind of confinement of Notre-Dame,” Thévaud-Mony says. “It’s important that cleaning has started, but if they don’t do anything else, the neighbourhood could be contaminated again over the following weeks and months.”

Lead pollution goes against Macron's timeline

She notes the protective covering would run counter to the government’s plans to rebuild and reopen the cathedral to within the five-year timeline set by President Emmanuel Macron.

“The lead problem goes against such a short delay, because it would take months to build a metallic structure for confinement, and then you would have to organise the work according to the demands of that kind of site. [...] The works would be very long, longer than five years.”

She also says there has not been enough public attention given to the risks posed by lead pollution.

“The first media reaction was to say it was not as dangerous as associations and trade unions were saying, but we are not saying anything else than what is in the labour laws, in the public health code and in the environmental rules.”

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