The Health Risks Of The Notre-Dame Fire

As Paris Rebuilds Notre Dame, The Fire's Slow-Burning Health Risks Still Need Attention

It's been five months since the destructive fire that broke the world's heart, but as more information comes out, it is becoming apparent that peoples' health could still be very much at risk.

Instead of throwing an elaborate party for my 16th birthday, I decided I would rather go on a once-in-a-lifetime trip with my mother to Paris, France, and spend a week being entranced by the city's majestic architecture and culture.

That very first day, after getting off the plane and making it through customs, my mom and I dropped our bags off at the hotel and took the little over one-and-a-half-mile walk to get to the cathedral that had been one of my most anticipated sights of the trip.

And there she stood, tall and proud, as she had since being completed in 1345. A stone masterpiece with a gorgeous medieval latticework roof straight from the Middle Ages. There were people streaming in and out of the large gothic cathedral and a line that wrapped around the side. It was overwhelming to stand there and take it all in.

Notre-Dame 2/19/17Emma Ralls

That was why my heart broke when I heard the horrible news on April 15. It was hard to process that the structure that had welcomed me to the country I had so quickly fallen in love with had caught fire. I remember how my heart sank when I saw the devastating picture of the glorious building, a cloud of smoke and angry orange flames dancing along the roof. It was devastating.

Mere hours after the fire began to wreak havoc some of the damage was already clear to see. The fire destroyed most of the historic oak and lead roof, some stain glass windows, the wooden interior frame, and ultimately the iconic 750-ton spire. The entire world seemed to hold its breath over the hours it took for the fire to be contained and extinguished.

A couple of days after the fire was extinguished, news came out that some of the most famous artifacts — the well-known rose windows, stone gargoyles, and other priceless relics — were spared from the harsh flames that seemed to destroy so much. A little under a month later, the French senate passed a bill stating Notre Dame had to be rebuilt exactly as it was. The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, even pledged to complete the reconstruction of Notre Dame within five years.

Since these announcements, we have gotten minimal updates about the progress and state of the cathedral in the news. In fact, it had been such a long time since I had heard any information, I took it upon myself to Google the advancements on Notre Dame and what I saw shocked me.

Instead of a positive update on the rebuilding of Notre-Dame, I was greeted with headlines like "Notre Dame's Toxic Fallout" from The New York Times, "460 Tons Of Lead Burned During Notre Dame Fire Posing Public Health Risk" from Axios, and maybe most devastatingly "Toxic Fallout from the Notre Dame Cathedral Fire May have Exposed 6,00 children to unsafe levels of lead" from Insider, among many more.

Each article essentially said the same thing: that the dust and debris from the fire could pose a major health threat for a large amount of Parisians. This toxic cloud from the burning roof had a very high lead content and may be a large health risk to exposed schools, daycares, parks, and other highly trafficked Paris sites in the area surrounding Notre Dame, causing an increase in anxiety.

The issue many people are having is that there may be evidence that the French authorities knew about this early on and did little to inform the public. Through a New York Times Investigation, "French authorities had indications that lead exposure could be a grave problem within 48 hours of the fire," yet it was a month before a lead test was conducted at any of the at-risk schools. Still, to this day, not every school has been tested.

These tests came back showing lead levels above the regulatory level in France. Several of these exposed buildings house children like primary schools and daycares, which has led to an increased state of anxiety in parents and day-to-day city-goers. Not only that, but in public forums like plazas and streets, the amount of lead found was determined to be 60 times over the safety standard. Much criticism is being leveled at the French authorities. According to The New York Times, "The authorities failed to clean the entire area in the immediate aftermath of the fire and waited four months to finish a full decontamination of the neighborhood."

The dangerously high amount of lead, which is especially dangerous to children under the age of 6 and pregnant women, is causing health experts to caution and even recommend avoiding bringing children into the vicinity of the Notre Dame cathedral area. However, it has been determined that the high levels weren't solely from the Cathedral fire and some of the lead may be part of an ongoing general issue Paris is facing with rising levels of lead in the city.

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