LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Reconstruction at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is set to restart this week - next week. Officials closed the site after finding high levels of lead in the church. Environmental health and labor groups accuse the government of downplaying the risk of lead contamination for locals and tourists. Jake Cigainero reports from Paris.
JAKE CIGAINERO, BYLINE: When the April 15 blaze ripped through Notre Dame Cathedral's roof and spire, it melted 440 tons of lead, sending up a giant plume of yellow smoke that spread toxic dust over the area. Before the construction site opens again, the city will start an intensive cleaning operation this week on Notre Dame's facade, the square in front of the cathedral and surrounding streets.
The plaza in front of Notre Dame Cathedral is blocked off, but people are still coming and taking pictures. There are families sitting on the pavement...
...Many of them unaware of the risk of lead exposure following the fire, like Cordelia Drew from London, who's visiting Paris with friends.
Did you know about this potential lead pollution problem?
CORDELIA DREW: I did not until you told me about it.
CIGAINERO: Just after the fire, police said the risk of lead exposure was very localized and advised area residents to use wet wipes to get rid of dust. Officials said lead tests at schools and day care centers in the immediate area showed low levels of the metal. But suddenly last month, the city temporarily closed two schools in a neighboring district after finding worrying amounts of lead particles. This week, a regional health agency said that since the fire, it had tested 175 children living near Notre Dame. Only two of those had blood lead levels over the limit.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
EMMANUEL GREGOIRE: (Speaking French).
CIGAINERO: Paris Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Gregoire told French media that schools would be deep cleaned and tested before class was back in session. Authorities say they have taken proper measures, but it took two weeks after the fire to send residents lead safety instructions. And officials released a map showing lead levels only last month.
CIGAINERO: The environmental protection association Robin des Bois says authorities should have issued public warnings about lead earlier. The group filed a lawsuit last month claiming officials failed to quickly contain the contamination. Jacky Bonnemains, the association's president, was surprised authorities were not communicating more about the danger. Bonnemains says officials have downplayed the severity of the risk.
JACKY BONNEMAINS: We believe the priority was to not hinder the economy and the business in the historic quarter of Paris.
CIGAINERO: The Paris prosecutor will have to decide if he'll open an investigation. People working in shops and cafes just next to Notre Dame tested negative for lead contamination. But when Notre Dame burned, wind blew the smoke to left bank districts southwest of the cathedral. Inspectors recently visited Pascal Londais’ cafe near the Saint-Michel Fountain to test for lead.
PASCAL LONDAIS: (Through interpreter) They told us to clean the terrace with water and not to sweep.
CIGAINERO: His staff might have to get blood tests. Londais says he's not worried but still thinks authorities waited too long.
LONDAIS: (Through interpreter) They should have intervened more quickly. Fifteen days, three weeks - hey, there's lead. We're going to take care of this immediately.
CIGAINERO: Bonnemains from the environmental protection association says lead pollution will be a problem for a long time in Paris and that the Seine River will spread it even beyond the city. For NPR News, I'm Jake Cigainero in Paris.
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