As Notre Dame burns think of the children of Paris. Potentially worse than Flint – how many have been poisoned by this fire?

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]

And another:

“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]

And another:

“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.

To read more about symptoms in adults and children, please check out these links: Symptoms in Children + Symptoms in Adults.

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.

  1. Leave town if you can.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.]
  5. 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:

  1. 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)
  2. Keep all your windows closed – and cover them with plastic or damp towels to keep the smoke out.
  3. 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.]
  4. Check out your local air quality websites to monitor the air on a daily (or hourly) basis (same as point 4 above).
  5. 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.)

Here’s a post I wrote about cleaning lead dust out of laundry [Link] and here’s a little video of how best to clean horizontal surfaces to remove lead dust [Link.]

As always, please let me know if you have questions.

Thank you for reading and for sharing my posts.

Tamara Rubin
#LeadSafeMama
Former Paris Resident

*Amazon links are affiliate links and if you purchase something after clicking on one of my links I may receive a small percentage of what you spend at no extra cost to you.

21 Responses to As Notre Dame burns think of the children of Paris. Potentially worse than Flint – how many have been poisoned by this fire?

  1. Kathy Lauckner April 15, 2019 at 9:17 pm #

    Hello, As hot as that fire was, much of the lead boiled and volatilized so the question would be how far did it travel. Church window restoration has lead poisoned the craftsman for centuries. It will be interesting to see what the environmental assessment will be according to French law.

    • Rik Smoody April 16, 2019 at 6:20 pm #

      Lead is bad enough without blowing smoke, so to speak.
      The BOILING point of lead is 1,749 °C which is unlikely in a wood fire.
      From various sources:
      “A bonfire should be treated with respect as it can reach temperatures as hot as 1,100 degrees Celsius ”
      “The gases burn and increase the temperature of the wood to about 600 degrees Celsius (1,112 degrees Fahrenheit). When the wood has released all its gases, it leaves charcoal and ashes. Charcoal burns at temperatures exceeding 1,100 degrees Celsius”

      I just went on a Google-tangent of non-answers… while I do like wood-fired pizza, it is just not relevant to this question. 🙂
      With a coal fire and optimal added air, it appears you can get to about 1900C, but how close using wood?
      Even early steel smelters did not work on wood.

      Doubtless little droplets of lead escaped with the smoke.
      It would be foolish to breathe heavily downwind if you smell smoke, and don’t drink water out of puddles.
      Thoroughly wash any vegetables from your downwind garden.
      Aerosols are bad enough to cause concern.
      Still, it’s a good bet that most of the lead is in melted globs among the ashes, not vaporized.

      • Tamara April 16, 2019 at 8:57 pm #

        Rik, by your logic my children were not poisoned in the way they were poisoned.

        Did you miss the point above about how the Lead does not need to be “boiled” or “vaporized” to be part of the smoke? The concern is for microparticulate Lead in the smoke- which is likely why the smoke at Notre Dame was thick and yellow (read the other comments below.)

        Given our 14+ year friendship you have intimate knowledge of my children and you know how they were poisoned. You were around when it happened. The contractor used FIRE to “burn” the lead paint off the house. It’s a matter of semantics as the process (often called “open flame torch burning”) didn’t actually burn the Lead-based paint so much as heat it to a temperature high enough to melt it (so it could be more easily scraped off.)

        The invisible Lead micro-particles in the air (from the high temperature heating of the Lead in the paint, heating at temperatures estimated to be in the range of 700 to 1,100 degrees by the experts who worked on our case) permeated my home and were inhaled by my children. This is known. This is a fact.

        To argue irrelevant scientific facts (over semantics, like whether or not the Lead may have been boiling) does not make them relevant or true.

      • Tamara April 16, 2019 at 9:02 pm #

        Wanted to bring your attention to this comment from Dan on the Notre Dame piece:
        “I’m fairly certain that the strange yellow smoke accompanying the orange flames contained vast quantities of newly formed lead oxide powder. PbO is the oxide that forms when lead is heated in air at over 600C, and the color matches up nicely to what we witnessed.

        It seems quite obvious to me that everyone downwind of the fire suffered a considerable exposure. I fear that this may end up being one of the most insidious poisonings to occur within recent years.”

      • Tamara April 16, 2019 at 9:06 pm #

        Another comment here on my blog, Rik:

        From Michael:
        “I’m surprised there is no discussion or concern about the fate of the lead roof on Notre Dame and I’ve sent the following to the Guardian and the BBC.

        When there is a major fire or explosion at a chemical plant the public are advised to stay indoors and close the windows. Yet when Notre Dame was in full blaze thousands of onlookers were seemingly not given such advice. The spire we know was covered in hundreds of tons of lead – let alone the guttering and elsewhere (possibly covering the entire roof structure). A typical fire temperature of 1000 C will give a lead vapour concentration of about 2000 parts per million (ppm) rising to around 275,000 ppm at 1500 C often experienced in major fires at roof level. That is, about one quarter of the vapour would be lead the other three quarters air. Lead vapour, probably oxidised, must have been spread in the fumes billowing from the fire and yet there has been no mention of potential dangers from lead poisoning. Rather concerning for the thousands of onlookers breathing the fumes.

        Looking at the video images of the fire it is clear how quickly the metal roof disappears. Eyewitnesses also describe the strange greenish/yellow colour of the smoke pouring from the building. This may well be an indicator that it is indeed lead which is forming a large part of the smoke. If so, this pall of lead will then quickly fall back to the ground covering large parts of central Paris as lead is much heavier than air.

        Lead also melts at 327 C so where has all the molten lead ended up? If it cannot all be accounted for inside the cathedral where it has poured in molten form then it must have vapourised into the atmosphere. Why has no-one mentioned this possibility? Are the authorities measuring lead concentrations in the air and on the ground in Paris?

        Looking at videos it appears that the wind direction was towards the west, in the direction of Tour Eiffel.”

  2. Dr. Kate April 16, 2019 at 6:13 am #

    I’m glad to see an excellent rundown of what is known here that raises this issue. This isn’t just about the kids – adults can get lead poisoning, too. Elderly are vulnerable as well, particularly since lead has such powerful cognitive effects. I hope that my colleagues in France are on this – the abatement will be exceptionally difficult. A fair amount also landed in the Seine.

  3. Jeff Adkisson April 16, 2019 at 9:58 am #

    Thanks for this post and yes, that was the first worry I had hearing of the lead in the roof. We in NYC only found out about carbon poisoning in the air from the thousands of printers in the WTC (and other toxins) days after the event, after rescue workers volunteered and even the official EMT and Fire dept’s didn’t have or use the proper equipment provided (when there was enough). And the crowds pushing closer to see the devastation. It is a human reaction being curious but it is our government (and France’s) job to protect us.

    • Tamara April 16, 2019 at 10:46 am #

      Thank you for commenting, Jeff.
      – T

      • Sharon T April 16, 2019 at 5:00 pm #

        I have been looking for an article on this since it happened, and no one has even brought it up! I think you should definitely write an article/ contact news media.

  4. Michael Anderson April 16, 2019 at 3:00 pm #

    I’m surprised there is no discussion or concern about the fate of the lead roof on Notre Dame and I’ve sent the following to the Guardian and the BBC.

    When there is a major fire or explosion at a chemical plant the public are advised to stay indoors and close the windows. Yet when Notre Dame was in full blaze thousands of onlookers were seemingly not given such advice. The spire we know was covered in hundreds of tons of lead – let alone the guttering and elsewhere (possibly covering the entire roof structure). A typical fire temperature of 1000 C will give a lead vapour concentration of about 2000 parts per million (ppm) rising to around 275,000 ppm at 1500 C often experienced in major fires at roof level. That is, about one quarter of the vapour would be lead the other three quarters air. Lead vapour, probably oxidised, must have been spread in the fumes billowing from the fire and yet there has been no mention of potential dangers from lead poisoning. Rather concerning for the thousands of onlookers breathing the fumes.

    Looking at the video images of the fire it is clear how quickly the metal roof disappears. Eyewitnesses also describe the strange greenish/yellow colour of the smoke pouring from the building. This may well be an indicator that it is indeed lead which is forming a large part of the smoke. If so, this pall of lead will then quickly fall back to the ground covering large parts of central Paris as lead is much heavier than air.

    Lead also melts at 327 C so where has all the molten lead ended up? If it cannot all be accounted for inside the cathedral where it has poured in molten form then it must have vapourised into the atmosphere. Why has no-one mentioned this possibility? Are the authorities measuring lead concentrations in the air and on the ground in Paris?

    Looking at videos it appears that the wind direction was towards the west, in the direction of Tour Eiffel.

  5. Dan April 16, 2019 at 6:22 pm #

    I’m fairly certain that the strange yellow smoke accompanying the orange flames contained vast quantities of newly formed lead oxide powder. PbO is the oxide that forms when lead is heated in air at over 600C, and the color matches up nicely to what we witnessed.

    It seems quite obvious to me that everyone downwind of the fire suffered a considerable exposure. I fear that this may end up being one of the most insidious poisonings to occur within recent years.

  6. alex eckelberry April 16, 2019 at 7:12 pm #

    Thank you for bringing this to people’s attention. Virtually all churches in Europe have lead roofs, so if one is one fire, it’s not a good thing.

    The lead contamination could very well be on a large scale. It’s not just the air. Vaporized lead will potentially drift down and cover streets, cars and homes.It’s everywhere and will take a while to wash out, but it will still contaminate the soil. I hope the French understand the situation here.

  7. Robert E. Swartz April 17, 2019 at 1:28 pm #

    I sent this to the French Embassy in Chicago Tuesday morning. . (Couldn’t get through to the Washington embassy)

    French embassy contact@consulfrance-chicago.org

    Gentlemen,
    I am Robert E. Swartz a retired Analytical Chemist in Sterling Heights Michigan.
    I observed the disaster of the Notre Dame fire on the evening news and saw something alarming. The fire produced a large yellow cloud and it is my opinion that it was a Lead Oxide cloud produced when the tower which was reportedly constructed of wood and 250 tons of lead was consumed by the flames. To produce a cloud of that large would mean the production of several hundred pounds of lead oxide or more. If I am correct the health authorities in France should be alerted to the problem. The whole cathedral would be cover with the oxide and a plume of lead would be spread down wind. The cleanup crew should be alerted and perhaps the downwind area should be tested. I spent 45 year analyzing exotic metals and I am afraid that a portion of the lead in the church’s spire has vaporized. Lead oxide is yellow in color, I may be wrong but I must say something.
    Please pass this to the appropriate people who have the ability to look into this.
    Thank You. Robert E. Swartz

    • Tamara April 17, 2019 at 2:55 pm #

      Hi Robert,

      This is terrific. Thank you for sharing it here as a comment!

      Tamara

  8. Tom April 17, 2019 at 4:46 pm #

    Thank you for posting about this. As soon as I read that the roof covering is/was lead I wondered about its fate and what it meant/means for first responders, onlookers, and the surrounding people and environment.

    • Tamara April 17, 2019 at 4:50 pm #

      Thank you for commenting!

    • Tamara April 19, 2019 at 11:36 pm #

      Thank you so much for sharing this!
      Tamara

  9. Verena Baumann April 23, 2019 at 2:15 am #

    Hi Tamara,
    thank you so much for your article – so very valuable!

    We are waiting for the result of the analysis of the filter.

    Airparif: https://www.airparif.asso.fr/actualite/detail/id/262

    “Les niveaux de plomb dans l’air ambiant parisien sont depuis longtemps en limite de détection des appareils compte tenu notamment de la suppression de l’essence plombée. Mais bien que cela ne soit plus obligatoire, ce polluant est toujours mesuré en continu par Airparif, néanmoins les résultats des analyses en laboratoire ne pourront être connus au mieux dans quelques jours.”

    A local source for information:

    AFVS
    Association des familles victimes du saturnisme
    20 villa Compoint
    75017 Paris

    http://www.afvs.net/incendie-de-notre-dame-lafvs-alerte-sur-les-risques-lies-au-plomb/

    very warmly
    Verena

    • Tamara April 23, 2019 at 10:09 am #

      Thank you so much for sharing this!
      Tamara

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.