As It Happens

Environmental group warned of lead risk from Notre-Dame fire weeks before authorities

Jacky Bonnemains, the head of Robin des Bois, says there has been a lack of information about how damaging lead from the fire is.

French authorities urge young, pregnant people near the fire-ravaged cathedral to get lead levels checked

Smoke and flames rise during a fire at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019. (Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)

Update: On July 26, the Robin des Bois NGO filed a lawsuit in Paris accusing French authorities of endangering human life by not immediately taking measures to protect the public from possible lead exposure linked to the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire. The news comes after two schools near the cathedral were closed for cleaning over fears of lead contamination, reports ABC News.

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French health authorities are urging young children and pregnant women living near the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris to get their blood tested for lead levels as a precaution, nearly two months after a devastating fire gutted the iconic church.

But lead poisoning is something the environmental NGO Robin des Bois —  or Robin Hood — has been warning about since the fire broke out on April 15. Just days after the blaze, the group called for a plan to decontaminate the area to take precedence over rebuilding. 

Now the health authorities are investigating the effects of the fire after a child tested for "higher than normal standards" of lead. 

Jacky Bonnemains, the head of Robin des Bois, spoke with As It Happens Carol Off about his concerns. Here is part of that conversation. 

What did you think when you heard about this child with the abnormally high levels of lead?

Unfortunately, we were not surprised.

While the cathedral was burning, at least 300 tons (272 tonnes) of lead in the roof of the cathedral, but also in the spire of the cathedral, were [melted] and turned into particles, into dust, into soot, into ashes, which were scattered around in the area and also in the Seine river. 

We sounded the alarm two days after the burning.

Can you be sure that this child with the lead levels, that it came from the fire? Have they actually confirmed that that is the source of the lead?

An environmental inquiry in the flat is underway. We are not sure, because other sources of lead can, for instance, be old paint or pipes. But this quarter is not known to be dangerous for the health of the people.

So it is presumed that the burning is responsible of this high level.

Architect Philippe Villeneuve gives Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Archpriest Patrick Chauvet a tour of the fire's aftermath. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

I know that your organization, Robin De Bois, you have been warning about this since the fire. Now it seems the health authorities in Paris are taking this very seriously. What are they telling people in the area around Notre-Dame Cathedral to do? 

Firstly, we were all alone to call the inhabitants to clean the flats with wet rags, to clean the windows, to wash the tapestries and the toys of the children.

And now these warnings are more and more published by the authorities.

But, for instance, there is no poster in front of each building that could be affected by the dust. There is no visible information in French or in English.   

There is no danger for the tourists who spend one hour in the area. But a lot of English people are living in the area and they are not informed of the risks.

But you know … very small amounts of lead in small children and babies can have very bad consequences. This has been now about six weeks since the fire. Does it seem a bit late to be telling people to wash the toys and wash the floors and surfaces?

Yes it's late, of course. But this problem will last for a long time. 

There are big quantities of dust, which are against the walls of the cathedral, in the scaffolding, which was circling the spire. And as long as the cathedral is not cleaned, the area will be exposed to the dust.

People kneel on the pavement as they pray outside watching flames engulf Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. (Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)

Are there concerns about any concentration of lead, perhaps in fish that people might get, or in their gardens?

[During] the burning, the toxic plume was drifting in the west of Paris and above the Seine River. And [toxins] out of the plume are surely now in some public gardens and also, of course, in the river bed. And the fish and birds also are under the threat of the contamination.

What about the people doing repairs on the cathedral? Are they exposed to levels of lead that are dangerous?

At the beginning ... they were absolutely without mandatory equipment and they were exposed to the inhalation of the dust. Now, since a few days ... a part of the workers are equipped and protected.

But around the cathedral, we have seen the sweepers of the city of Paris continue their work without protection. And it was really a shame.

It was the most spectacular sign of the lack of information.

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Donya Ziaee. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.