1652285892790 Notre Dame

Long-Term Lead Risks from Notre-Dame Cathedral

April 16, 2019

The heartbreaking April 2019 fire that partially destroyed the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris also left clouds of lead dust across the city, posing health risks to residents and visitors. Here's what you need to know about the elevated lead levels and the fire protection system that may have averted a total disaster.

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:

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.

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has been with BUILDINGS since 2010. She is a two-time FOLIO: Eddie award winner who aims to deliver practical, actionable content for building owners and facilities professionals.

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