Poisonous Lead Dust a Result of Notre Dame Cathedral Fire

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29 December, 2019

Paris has many old buildings with lead, yet does not have rules about lead dust in public spaces.

The issue has become an important concern after last spring's huge

fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. The fire, in April, released thousands of kilograms of toxic lead dust into the atmosphere in just a few hours.

"When the Notre Dame fire happened, we didn't have any threshold for what represented dangerous lead levels outdoors," Anne Souyris told the Associated Press. She is the Paris City Hall deputy mayor in charge of public health. "It was a wake-up call...the amount of lead that was burned in Notre Dame was unprecedented."

Lead in Paris

The Associated Press (AP) news agency has found that many countries lack rules about lead in outdoor, public spaces. Other historic European capitals such as Rome and London do not have rules for outdoor lead dust levels. That is also the case for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization.

Poisoning from lead dust can cause permanent loss to mental ability, seizures, coma or death. Pregnant mothers and young children are at the greatest risk.

Concerns about lead are especially strong in Paris. Lead is common in many parts of Paris' 19th-century buildings — in roofs, balconies, floors and terraces. Experts say because Paris is a highly preserved historic city it also is a danger spot for lead.

"Paris is a beautifully preserved city," Souyris said. "But we realize we have also beautifully preserved its lead."

Neil M. Donahue is a chemistry professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "Preservation does make Paris unusual," he said. "Incineration of one of the most famous roofs in the world may be especially dramatic, but there is no alchemy in this world. Lead will remain lead forever."

The fire also brought attention, among officials and the public, to the dangers of lead. In June, Paris' Regional Health Agency advised that all pregnant women and young children living near the site take a test for lead levels. The agency said 12 children in the surrounding areas tested positive for elevated lead levels in their blood since the fire. None had to be hospitalized or given medication.

One child's lead exposure came from a source other than the cathedral: the lead balcony of his family's apartment. It is unlikely the child would have been tested at all had it not been for the fire.

Despite the lead fallout from the fire, experts say tourists should not change their travel plans to one of the most visited cities in the world.

How to remove lead dust in Notre Dame?

However, poisonous lead dust remains a problem inside the fire-damaged cathedral.

Aline Magnien is director of the Historic Monuments Research Laboratory. She recently sent a team of scientists to Notre Dame. Their goal is to find out how to remove lead from inside the famous religious building without causing more damage.

"It's a race against the clock," she said. "The lead is a real problem. The cathedral is exceptionally precious. And we don't have the luxury of time."

I'm John Russell.

Thomas Adamson reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

threshold – n. the point or level at which something begins or changes

unprecedented – adj. not done or experienced before

seizure –n. medical : an abnormal state in which you become unconscious and your body moves in an uncontrolled and violent way

coma –n. a state in which a sick or injured person is unconscious for a long time

preserved – adj. kept in good condition over a long period of time

incineration – n. the complete burning of something

alchemy – n. a science that was used in the Middle Ages with the goal of changing ordinary metals into gold : a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way

precious – adj. very valuable or important : too valuable or important to be wasted or used carelessly

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