Risk of Lead Poisoning in Paris After Notre-Dame Fire

Stéphanie Lavaud

June 10, 2019

PARIS – The fire that destroyed much of the Notre-Dame Cathedral also caused lead pollution in the area, French authorities have said.

Following the identification of a blood lead level in a child higher than the regulatory reporting threshold, the Regional Health Agency (Agence Régionale de Santé, ARS) Ile-de-France is inviting families with children under the age of 7, as well as pregnant women living on Île de la Cité to monitor their blood lead levels.

ARS also emphasised basic preventative measures to the public.

Notre-Dame contained about 300 tonnes of lead in its roof. The structure, which was built in 1160, comprised an oak frame covered with large, thin lead panels.

During the fire, this toxic metal flowed onto the stonework and ground below. In addition, the surroundings of the cathedral could also be contaminated from the water flow.

Lead Residues

"The fire that erupted in Notre-Dame on 15th April exposed the surrounding areas to lead combustion residues because of the significant presence of this metal in the roof of the cathedral. Lead residues may be present in the environment either as airborne particles, or as residual dust indoors or on the ground outside," wrote the ARS in its news release from 4th June.

It set out to be reassuring, reporting in a previous press release drafted jointly with the Police Prefecture of Paris that "the samples taken by the Central Laboratory of the Prefecture of Police (Laboratoire central de la préfecture de police, LCPP) from 17 April [had] shown that there was no risk associated with air quality" since "all the values recorded on Île de la Cité are below the regulatory threshold of 0.25 μg/m3". It specified, however, that "the heterogeneous values - some of which were high - were found in the ground nearby and in some administrative premises overlooking the cathedral (dust)", which had led the grounds in question to be "prohibited to public access". As a precautionary measure, the ARS nevertheless invited families to consult with their family physicians in case of doubt "in order to potentially determine blood lead (dosage of lead in the blood)".

Abnormal Blood Lead Levels in a Child

It was during one of these blood lead checks that a level higher than the regulatory reporting threshold was found in a child living on the Île de la Cité. According to the ARS, this caused the initiation of "an environmental survey to identify, in the places of this child's life, the cause or causes … and to verify that this was not related to any factors other than the exceptional event of the fire".

As a precaution, the ARS is now inviting families with children under the age of 7 as well as pregnant women living on Île de la Cité to see their family doctors, who would arrange testing for levels of lead in the blood at a special screening centre.


The ARS also emphasises a number of essential preventative measures:

  • Frequently cleaning the floors of rooms, balconies, terraces, and windowsills with a damp cloth, not using brooms or vacuum cleaners unless these are equipped with VHE (Very High Efficiency) or HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters

  • Limiting the introduction of dust into homes by removing outdoors shoes

  • Washing hands regularly (especially before meals or after contact with the ground), keeping nails short and not biting them

  • Frequently washing children's toys as well as other objects that they are likely to put into their mouths

Local Associations Concerned

If the ARS and Prefecture of Police set out to allay concerns by saying that "there are no lead-related health risks in terms of air quality" or that "the presence of lead in quantities greater than the regulatory thresholds can only have an impact on health in the event of repeated ingestion", some local groups remain to be convinced.

This includes environmental associations like The Robins of the Woods (Les Robins des Bois) and the Association of Victim Families of Lead Poisoning (Association des Familles Victimes du Saturnisme, AFVS) - who were the first to react and alert the public and Health Authorities about the health risks related to lead pollution. AVRS said it was  worried about the consequences of lead pollution in the air, soil, and water "for people who visit the disaster area and, all the more, for those who have worked, are working or will work there (firefighters, police staff, cathedral, relief and clearance personnel, construction workers, etc.) as well as for those who live there."

Meanwhile, the environmental group describes Notre-Dame de Paris as a "polluted site", going so far as to consider that "at present the cathedral is rendered into a state of toxic waste".

Mindful that public authorities have not yet published a map tracking the pollution, particularly the lead levels in the air, water, and soil in and around the cathedral as well as the areas where these particles have settled, and that they have not "organised a network for complete, accurate and adapted information on health risks and protective measures", the Association of Victim Families of Lead Poisoning provided information on lead poisoning as well as a number of tips on its website.

Translated from Medscape French Edition

Photo credit: by Wandrille de Préville (Wikipedia)


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