Monday – April 15, 2019
Today Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned.
My first reaction was one of visceral, personal shock and sadness — because I lived in Paris for a year (June 1989 to June 1990) when I was 19 and 20, nannying for a few families and studying with the Theatré du Soliel and the Sorbonne (via NYU France).
During my year in the City of Lights, when I was not at school (or hanging out at the Violin Dingue, or walking along the river searching for antique postcards to buy to send to my friends and family back home, or sitting reading books and plays at Shakespeare & Company) I would often go to Notre Dame and sit for hours and sketch the architectural elements and intricacies (developing concepts for how this type of detail and art might be integrated into clothing, theatrical costumes and fabric designs!) I still have some of my sketchbooks, which somehow survived our own total loss (house) fire in 2002.
I also have a vivid memory of the first time I visited Notre Dame, when I toured Europe by bicycle, in the summer of 1987 — when I was just 17! I think that year I spent at least two or three hours in the Cathedral – just trying to soak up as much of the art and history as I could.
I have such fond memories of Paris and all the time spent there — and of course, I have many friends to this day who still live in Paris (with their families – including many young children.) So it was already personally horrifying and heart-breaking to see the news coverage of Notre Dame, the 800+ year-old grand, beloved architectural and religious Parisian icon in flames!
But immediately on the heels of that initial reaction, came an even darker, more disturbing thought…
Given what I do (childhood Lead-poisonig prevention) – and what I know as a result of my work – I started to wonder… and then my friend, Krissy sent me a link to this article from Weather.com: “Notre Dame Has Weathered Centuries of Damage From the Elements; Renovations May Be the Cause of Monday’s Fire”
… and most important, she brought my attention to this quote in that article:
“A $6.8 million overhaul had already started in the spire, according to France24.com, and it was surrounded by scaffolding Monday. Sixteen statues representing the 12 apostles and the four Gospel writers were taken off the 315-foot spire just this past Thursday as part of the renovation. Water regularly worked its way through cracks in 250-ton LEAD covering over the spire.” [emphasis mine]
How much Lead was actually in that roof and spire?
Many accounts said that the spire alone had as much as 250 tons of Lead (roofing/sheeting material) covering the wood.
:The wood frame structure supported a roof, made of LEAD, that weighed 210 tons. The lead frame had the advantage of being fire-resistant, according to the National Library of France. But the wood that supported that LEAD ROOF is what burned. [emphasis mine – Link]
“The architect decided to re-create the original medieval structure. The new structure was built out of oak wood covered in LEAD and weighed 700 tons.” [emphasis mine – Link]
“The first spire was constructed at the transept crossing, which was a bell tower but was taken down after 1786. Yet during the restoration project overseen by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, he decided to build a second spire, but not as a bell tower and this was to be independent from the main cathedral structure.
It dominated the verdigris copper statues of the 12 apostles and being 93m in height it took 500 tons of wood and 250 tons of LEAD to complete it.” [emphasis mine – Link]
One account I read today said there was as much as 500 tons of Lead roofing in the all of elements that burned (of which the spire noted above was only one component).
Still another account said 750+ tons of Lead were present in the roof and other elements of the building that were destroyed (including lead in the stained glass windows.)
My God —that is a lot of LEAD to be BURNING in Paris!
One of my readers on Facebook shared this comparison with me:
But does Lead actually burn?
While it can be argued that Lead technically doesn’t actually burn or “aerosolize” (literally completely vaporize) from heat at the temperatures that may have been reached in this Notre Dame fire, the melting of Lead with the extreme heat of a building fire DOES cause Lead micro-particulates to get into the air in significant and detectable levels — definitely at levels high enough to poison humans – especially given the sheer quantity (and condition) of the Lead roof sheeting that has been subjected to the very high heat of this fire.
Lead melts at 621 degrees. A fire of this nature could easily reach temperatures twice that or higher. [You can read more about the melting point of Lead here.]
Googling “how hot does a fire get” here’s one answer I came up with:
The heat generated in a property fire is actually more dangerous than the flames themselves. The heat alone can kill. Room temperatures may be 100 degrees at your feet, which doesn’t sound too bad until you realize heat rises. At eye level, it could be 600 degrees, hotter than the highest setting on most residential ovens. Temperatures at the ceiling could reach 1,500 degrees! [Link]
What are the potential health impacts for the citizens of Paris?
While comparing disasters is never popular, I felt the comparison (to Flint) is necessary (in this case) for folks to understand the potential import and urgency of the concern.
Children in Flint carry the potential for the impacts of long-term chronic Lead-poisoning.
As a result of today’s Notre Dame fire (and the relatively small size – geographically – of the city of Paris), all the residents of Paris (and the surrounding suburbs, depending on the wind) have the potential for significant acute Lead-poisoning and related symptoms.
For me, the risk of permanent brain damage from exposure to heat-released Lead-containing fumes is not merely some exercise in hypothetical conjecture; in 2005 my own children were acutely poisoned in exactly this way – exposure to (inhaled) Lead-particulate containing fumes and smoke that permeated our home. This has left my 14-year-old son Avi with permanent brain damage (he’s a brilliant kid with a very-high IQ, but as result of traumatic brain injury from acute Lead-poisoning, his visual memory is in the 4th percentile – just one of the profound learning disabilities this incident caused this boy.) Avi was just 7 months old when he was poisoned.
Acute symptoms from immediate exposure to the toxic air created by a disaster like this could include headaches, vomiting, dizziness, GI issues, and more (flu-like symptoms without a fever.) The long-term symptoms following an acute exposure are usually much more dramatic and damaging and often not manifested for years (depending on the age, and stage of growth and development, of those exposed). These symptoms can include significant memory loss, documented brain injury (as my son has), debilitating long-term GI issues (which my older son suffers from), learning disabilities (dyslexia and others), behavioral disorders, increased risk of heart disease, increased risk of kidney failure, miscarriage, infertility, arthritis, compromised immune systems in general – and so many more potential causally linked and well studied impacts.
If you are in Paris and you can SMELL the smoke, then it is possible you are breathing in Lead particulates in the air as a component of that smoke.
“I live in Paris (or I have friends in Paris) what should we/they do?”
The advice below is the same advice I often give to families who contact me for help when an older home near their home is on fire.
- Leave town if you can.
- Go as far away from the smoke that you can — ideally somewhere with good airflow (like by the ocean), as the smoke and toxic particulates will disperse quite far over the coming days.
- Wait at least a few days for the smoke to settle (and ideally wait to return home until it has rained at least two or more times if possible – to help clear the air).
- Check out your local air quality websites to monitor the air on a daily (or hourly) basis to get a better sense of when the air near your home is safe. Here in Oregon we use AirNow.gov and AQICN.org. I will dig around and update this post a.s.a.p. with the best air monitoring site for Paris. [Please post a comment here on this blog post if you have an answer to that and I have not yet updated this post.] These sites do not generally have Lead-specific information, but will tell you want the air particulate levels are (which will include Lead.]
- Get a venous-draw Blood Lead Level test for everyone in the family as soon as possible. While blood Lead levels come down over time, it is important to know the peak (highest ) level that you had so you can treat the potential impacts before they happen. [Here’s a post with more information about blood lead testing.]
Here’s a screenshot from the AQICN website for Paris tonight (there may be a more accurate local AQI index for Paris – but this is a good place to start.) [Continue reading below the image.]
If you cannot leave town:
- Get P-100-level particulate masks (not just the paper masks, but industrial-grade masks with replaceable fine-particulate filters) for any time you have to be outside. We have dealt with smoke from fires in Oregon and my husband (who has done a lot of research about this as a result of the fires here) recommends masks like this one (link):
- Keep all your windows closed – and cover them with plastic or damp towels to keep the smoke out.
- Do your best to stay inside (especially if you are pregnant or have small children). [Maybe start a movie marathon or a game marathon… consider it similar to how you might react in a blizzard or great storm, going outside is dangerous.]
- Check out your local air quality websites to monitor the air on a daily (or hourly) basis (same as point 4 above).
- Get a venous-draw Blood Lead Level test for everyone in the family (same as point 5 above).
After the crisis period is over (in the next couple of days), depending on how close your home is to the fire – you may want to wipe down everything in your home to make sure there is not toxic dust settling on your possessions.
When wiping things down to remove lead dust you want to be sure to use disposable cloths with surfactants in the soap – to help pick up the lead in the dust. Clorox wipes (or similar) are a good option (but not baby wipes, as they do not have surfactants). This would include wiping down all horizontal surfaces that could collect dust and washing all clothes and soft goods that can be machine washed. You can wash hard plastic toys and other similar items (without wood or batteries) in the dishwasher (running it one or two times with soap with surfactants). Depending again on your proximity to the initial smoke plume, you may also want to wipe down vertical surfaces – especially including the entire surround of your windows (sills and trough – inside and out, wherever you can reach.)
As always, please let me know if you have questions.
Thank you for reading and for sharing my posts.
Former Paris Resident