For those of you following the ongoing controversies surrounding the devastating April 15th fire at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris, I direct you to a major investigative piece published yesterday by the New York Times.
After conducting dozens of interviews, and having obtained access to a number of confidential government documents, the Times alleges that “French authorities had indications that lead exposure could be a grave problem within 48 hours of the fire,” but failed to take prompt action. Indeed, according to reporters,
The tests showed levels of lead dust above the French regulatory standard for buildings hosting children in at least 18 day care centers, preschools and primary schools. In dozens of other public spaces, like plazas and streets, authorities found lead levels up to 60 times over the safety standard. Soil contamination in public parks may be among the biggest concerns. The highest contamination levels, revealed in the confidential Culture Ministry documents obtained by The Times, were at different spots in, or near, the cathedral site. The authorities failed to clean the entire area in the immediate aftermath of the fire and waited four months to finish a full decontamination of the neighborhood.
As an art scholar from The Met explained recently, by destroying the roof, the fire effectively accelerated the natural deterioration process of lead when it is exposed to the elements, but on a massive scale. With – quite literally – tons of lead being released into the atmosphere as a result of the fire, all of those bits were eventually going to come down somewhere. They settled on plants and manmade structures in squares and parks, clung to nearby rooftops and the sides of buildings, floated down the Seine, etc. As the (very well done) animations in the Times article indicate, according to the French Ministry of Culture’s own confidential documents, in some areas of the Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame is located, those lead particles were found to be at 1,300 times the safe exposure level.
As you might imagine, those at greatest risk of developing health complications are, as was the case in the 9/11 attacks in this country, construction and cleanup workers, police, firefighters, and other safety personnel. For weeks following the blaze, people engaged in salvage, cleanup, and security operations at the site without wearing masks, breathing apparatus, or hazmat suits. In addition, journalists gave live reports and conducted interviews, while tourists wandered around nearby outside of the cordoned off areas, snapping pictures for social media. And as I’ve explained previously, lead exposure is a particularly dangerous situation for pregnant women, infants and children, since it can lead to serious developmental issues.
While there’s currently an environmental lawsuit related to the Notre Dame fire making its way through the French courts, the information revealed by the Times will most likely give rise to additional actions and inquiries. Much of this will depend on when or if evidence of lead-related illnesses begins to appear among those belonging to the more at-risk groups described above. Meanwhile, for the moment we’re simply witnessing the usual mixture of French bureaucratic claptrap: denials, shrugs, claims of “not my job”, etc., led by a finger puppet of a French President, whose primary concern seems to be getting reelected so that he can continue to afford his La Prairie under eye concealer.
Yet I think that some higher-level questions need to be posed here in the wake of the Times’ reporting, particularly given the fact that Notre Dame de Paris, like a number of other significant architectural monuments in France – including virtually all of the thousands of historic churches in the entire country – are the property of the French government, which is legally responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of these structures under the terms of a massive government land grab back in the early 20th century.
Who is ultimately responsible for coordinating disaster responses such as these, when cultural property is in danger? Whatever the unique circumstances that contributed to this colossal cock-up, does the government of France as it currently (sort of) functions possess the requisite competence to address a future disaster at another site of cultural importance elsewhere in the country? If it can’t properly handle such a situation within the very heart of its capital city, would it even be capable of dealing with a similar one taking place outside of Paris?
The French people, it seems to me, deserve better answers to that question than they have received to date.