Long-Term Lead Risks from Notre-Dame Cathedral

April 16, 2019

Article was originally published on April 16, 2019; updated on September 24, 2019.

Months after a fire engulfed the famous Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, worrying levels of lead are still detectable across the city despite decontamination efforts, according to a recent New York Times report.

The cathedral's roof and spire contained roughly 460 tons of lead, which was carried throughout the city by the smoke coming from the April 15, 2019 fire. An environmental group, Robin Hood, has measured lead levels in the ground ranging from eight to 20 times higher than the regional health guidelines allow. 

The problem is not unique to Paris, the group warns. Many old monuments likely contain lead that could be launched into the air in the event of a fire. Some parts of the existing U.S. drinking water infrastructure also contain lead. Exposure is especially risky for children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, and the Times investigation describes a slow response from French authorities on cleanup and testing and a lack of information on how to take precautions against lead exposure.

The initial response to the fire at the iconic cathedral was one of horror, with continuous coverage flooding social media. People from countries around the globe expressed loss as they watched Paris firefighters battle to save as much of the building as possible.

Crowds of people remained in the streets, on the bridges around the island, praying together, singing and waiting for word that this important place would survive, that the art and relics stored inside were safe. 

They awoke the next morning to an ashy, smokey scene. However, the fire was out. No one died or was injured in the process. The building still stood firm in its place. Rebuilding was promised. Perhaps, symbolic for many during Holy Week. The famous spire fell, but the structure was saved from total destruction when the Paris Fire Brigade switched its focus to saving the two stone bell towers instead of fighting a lost cause on the roof.

CBSNews shared a peek from inside after the fire was extinguished:

Silver Lining - Fire Protection System

No one was killed or injured in the fire, thanks in part to the fire alarm system in the 850-year-old structure, the most-visited landmark in Paris.

Pedestrians passing by along the Seine River, which runs under the cathedral, heard the alarms sounding around 6:30 p.m. local time, after which everyone was evacuated.

The heartbreaking damage to the cathedral, where an average of 35,000 people per day come to pray, is a painful reminder of why fire alarm systems like the one installed at Notre-Dame are so important.

Many people could have died without it given how quickly the fire spread. The attention paid to the safety infrastructure most likely saved lives.

Don’t let your fire protection system fail you when you need it. Check out Fire Protection Systems 101.

If you missed what happened, here’s a recap of the information that was available at the time:

A large fire engulfed parts of the historic Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris the evening of April 15, causing its iconic spire to collapse and endangering hundreds of years of history. Onlookers watched as the flames ate through the wooden roof, which is currently covered in scaffolding from renovation work, according to the New York Times.


As of 8:20 p.m. local time, the fire is consuming the wooden interior of the cathedral and is likely to completely destroy it. The vault of the edifice may also be in danger. Crews are now trying to salvage some of the priceless art inside before the fire claims it all.

The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, but it’s possible that it may be connected to the €6 million renovation (roughly US $6.8 million), the BBC notes. The Catholic Church in France sought funding for the renovations last year after cracks began to show in the stone. A crane removed several bronze statues last week as part of the extensive work, CNBC adds.

Twitter translation of below: It looks like the roof is burning around the spire of Notre Dame. Hard to confirm from here.

Twitter translation of above: The spire of Our Lady just collapsed under the horrified exclamations people.


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Christina Rodriguez shared this video below from her trip with her husband to Notre Dame. Like many who posted memories on social media from their own visits, her video shows not only the amazing view and spiritual connection that attracts so many, but it also highlights how many lives could be lost if the proper fire safety systems failed.

Every commercial fire protection system, whether it’s installed in a 12th and 13th century Gothic cathedral or a new office tower, needs regular inspections, maintenance and testing to make sure it can keep your occupants safe. The importance of having a disaster recovery plan in place also can't be underestimated; whether it's a natural disaster or a roaring fire, every facility will be tested at some point. How confident are you that your building can pass the test?

Here’s how to keep your fire protection system primed and ready so you can be sure it will work in an emergency: Fire Protection Systems 101

Katie Downing contributed to this article.

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About the author
Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.