Notre Dame Construction Resumes After Lead Scare


After experiencing an operational shut down due to lead contamination concerns, construction at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has reportedly resumed with stricter decontamination measures in place.

Work on the site had been suspended since July 25 in order to complete a transition from “temporary” decontamination methods to “durable” methods, according to the Culture Ministry.

What Happened

On the evening of April 15, flames engulfed the more than 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral, destroying the spire and nearly two-thirds of the roof.

With the help of about 500 firefighters battling the blaze, the fire was brought under control by the early hours of Tuesday morning, five hours after the outbreak. Officials stated that no fatalities took place during the incident, and only one firefighter was reported to have experienced serious injuries.

However, city and national officials have since been criticized for failing to fully disclose the risk of contamination as a result of 440 tons of lead roofing that had burned in the fire, which consequently sent clouds of lead particles into the air.

Lead Testing

Following the tragedy, the cathedral’s plaza and gardens were blocked off from the public due to abnormally high levels of lead recorded inside and around the cathedral. However, reports claim that authorities failed to warn nearby residents and tourists, advising instead that residents should use wet wipes to clean up the dust at their homes and businesses.

A month after the fire, officials reassured the community that air quality around the historic landmark was not toxic and that Airparif—a Paris-based air quality watchdog—reported no abnormal levels of toxicity just a day after the fire took place.

Additionally, surrounding cafes and shops also tested negative for lead contamination in June. But Paris city officials stated that for some schools and daycare centers in the immediate area, tests showed low levels of metal intoxication, but have since been cleaned.

Last month, however, two schools had been temporarily closed due to hazardous levels of lead particles at the facilities. The schools are located just outside the immediate vicinity of Notre Dame. Paris Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Grégoire told TV News station LCI that the schools would be properly cleaned and tested prior to students returning in September. Grégoire also added that the schools suffered “no health risk” and that the decontamination process was easier to fulfill by closing its doors.

According to the World Health Organization, lead can accumulate in the body, causing serious and sometimes permanent health effects. Although there is no known level of lead exposure considered to be safe, children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can damage both the brain and nervous system.

Since the fire, roughly 175 children have been tested for lead poisoning, with 16 showing blood lead levels that would need to be monitored, but didn’t qualify as poison. Two child cases did show to have dangerous amounts of lead levels in their bloodstream. One of the children is still being examined to check the possibility of lead presence in the home versus the levels having been a result of the fire.

French authorities have also begun testing neighboring districts surrounding the cathedral, with inspectors visiting various local businesses that had been in the path of southwest winds experienced on the day of the fire.

"They should have intervened more quickly," said Pascal Londais, owner of La Fontaine Saint Michel. "Fifteen days, three weeks ... 'Hey, there's lead. We're going to take care of this immediately.' Not three months later."

Thinking like Londais, in July, environmental protection group Robin des Bois filed a lawsuit against French authorities over evidence of inertia regarding potential health risks caused by the fire. Although the lawsuit doesn’t name specific individuals, Paris City Hall has declined to comment on the matter.

Raising important public awareness about the danger of lead exposure, the lawsuit has inspired some critics to accuse French authorities of being in such a rush to get President Emmanuel Macron’s five-year rebuild plan rolling, that rebuild efforts continued without warning, regardless of potential health and safety expenses.

Unsure of what the outcome will be, a Parisian prosecutor will have to decide whether to conduct further investigations based on the evidence already submitted by the organization.

Clean Up Practices

Beginning on Aug. 13, maintenance and clean-up practices commenced in Notre Dame’s 100,000-square-foot enclosed plaza and on surrounding streets.

The process involves vacuuming, scrubbing and rinsing the pavement and various surfaces using a highly pressurized water mixer combined with a special particle compound used to remove lead. The wastewater is then recovered.

On more dense surfaces like granite, workers use a special gel to coat the contaminated surface, which is left to dry for several days and is then removed, pulling out any lead particles that have become embedded in the stone.

Although environmental associations, labor unions and other groups agree that cleanup procedures should have begun months ago, new decontamination measures have been established for workers at the cathedral. Through the use of foot baths, showers and wearing of disposable uniforms, workers are both more protected and less likely to spread toxic particles outside of the plaza. Strict check-ins and check-outs have also been employed.

“For us what is at stake isn’t the speed of reconstruction but the protection of the population and workers,” Benoît Martin, a representative for CGT, a large labor union, said, adding that although stricter safety measures were now in place at the cathedral, “the issue remains for all of the people who work or live around the construction site.”

Paris police chief Michel Cadot has stated that the cleanup efforts plan to commence by Sept. 10.

What’s Happening Now

The Culture Ministry said in a statement: “The goal of all construction work done at Notre-Dame is not to restore the cathedral, but to prevent it from collapsing.”

Reported to still be vulnerable, the building structure has had several stones fall from the vaults in the nave after a recent heat wave. Some officials have used the architectural emergency as a reason for negligence over the lead issues.

In addition to enforced lead cleanups taking place, workers are still in the process of removing metal scaffoldings and shoring the structure.

Restoration work on Notre Dame isn’t expected to begin until next year.

A transparency agreement has also since been signed by three French charities and the Culture Minster in regard to how donations will be used in preserving, restoring and rebuilding the damaged cathedral. An estimated $946 million in donations has been received from France and various countries around the world.


Tagged categories: Architecture; Asia Pacific; Cleanup; Construction; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Government; Health and safety; Latin America; Lead; Lead test kits; Maintenance + Renovation; North America; Projects - Commercial; Rehabilitation/Repair; Renovation; Safety; Solvent and chemical cleaning; Z-Continents

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