PARIS.— The April fire that engulfed Notre-Dame contaminated the cathedral site with clouds of toxic dust and exposed nearby schools, day care centers, public parks and other parts of Paris to alarming levels of lead.
The lead came from the cathedral’s incinerated roof and spire, and it created a public health threat that stirred increasing anxiety in Paris throughout the summer.
Five months after the fire, the French authorities have refused to fully disclose the results of their testing for lead contamination, sowing public confusion, while issuing reassuring statements intended to play down the risks.
Their delays and denials have opened the authorities to accusations that they put reconstruction of the cathedral — which President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to complete in five years — ahead of the health of thousands of people.
A comprehensive investigation by The New York Times has helped fill out an emerging picture of a failed official response. It found significant lapses by the French authorities in alerting the public to health risks, even as their understanding of the danger became clearer.
The April 15 blaze nearly destroyed the 850-year-old cathedral and brought immediate scrutiny onto whether adequate fire protections had been in place to safeguard a gem of Gothic architecture visited by some 13 million people a year.
Millions around the world watched in horror as the cathedral’s roof and spire succumbed to the flames that night and collapsed. But the billowing smoke carried its own hidden danger: massive quantities of lead, according to test results in confidential reports and others released by the government.
The Times’s investigation drew on confidential documents, including warnings by labor inspectors, a police report and previously undisclosed lead measurements by the Culture Ministry. Two French news organizations, Mediapart and Le Canard Enchaîné, have also investigated the lead concerns.
The documents, as well as scores of interviews, make clear that the French authorities had indications that lead exposure could be a grave problem within 48 hours of the fire.
But it took a month before city officials conducted the first lead tests at a school close to Notre-Dame. Even today, city and regional health officials have not tested every school in the proximity of the cathedral.
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.
The Culture Ministry, which is responsible for cleaning the site and rebuilding Notre-Dame, also failed or refused to enforce safety procedures for workers, leaving them exposed to lead levels more than a thousand times the accepted standard.
“These are astronomical levels, and the attitude of health authorities is inexplicable,” said Annie Thébaud-Mony, a prominent public health expert in France, who has been leading public calls for more transparency in the aftermath of the fire.
The lead levels were concerning enough that some health experts consulted by The Times advised against taking small children near Notre-Dame, though all agreed it was safe to visit Paris.
Some French officials and lead experts have cautioned against ‘‘paranoia’’ and argued that in a city as old as Paris, not all of the high lead levels can be attributed to the Notre-Dame fire. The test results may in part reflect broader underlying problems with lead contamination in Paris.
Lead exposure poses the greatest risk to children, especially under age 6, as well as to pregnant women and nursing mothers, who can pass lead on to their children.
If ingested, lead interferes with the normal development of the nervous system and can leave young children with permanent cognitive damage, producing problems that range from the loss of a few I.Q. points to difficulties with reading and a tendency toward aggressive behavior.
Even so, hundreds of children attended schools near Notre-Dame for weeks before the authorities began in mid-May to test for lead levels, or to clean the buildings.
“It’s almost a no-brainer that if you incinerate hundreds of tons of lead, you’re going to have some significant deposition of particles in the neighborhood,” said Matthew J. Chachère, the longtime counsel to the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning.
‘‘I would think there would have been sufficient knowledge among public health authorities to realize that this had the potential to cause a great deal of environmental harm,” Mr. Chachère said.
Notre-Dame is a unique structure in France, and in the aftermath of the fire, the official response was divided between city, regional and national officials. Each had distinct responsibilities, and sometimes competing interests, as lines of authority collided, undermining accountability.
City officials, who didn’t order lead testing until a month after the fire, said they had wanted to communicate more openly with the public but were following the lead of regional and national agencies.
“The state was afraid to make people afraid,” said Anne Souyris, the city’s deputy mayor in charge of health, who also noted that officials were faced with a singular disaster that left them struggling to navigate regulatory vagaries.
“They thought that they would protect people by not communicating about the lead issue,” she said
This month, Paris officials opened public schools for a new academic year and said none presented alarming lead levels any longer. Some private schools did not open on time, for fear of lead.
Many parents are unconvinced that the schools are lead free, partly because of the lack of transparency from the authorities.
Only gradually did public awareness of the problem grow. It took a lawsuit, leaked test results in the French press and public criticism from experts.
Experts have differed on whether the city should conduct mandatory testing on children in the exposed area. Some French experts argue that high lead levels on surfaces do not necessarily correlate with individual children being contaminated.
But many children were put at risk. More than 6,000 people under age 6 live within a half-mile of sites that tested high for lead levels.
The health authorities’s refusal to require testing of children will make it nearly impossible to assess the full extent of exposure, since lead levels reduce over time, as the element is eliminated from the body.
“They didn’t encourage people to get a lead concentration, they didn’t close the schools, the Health Regional Agency didn’t send any alert,” Ms. Thébaud-Mony said.
“The city of Paris hid behind them,” she said.
Hundreds of children were exposed
As imposing as a fortress, the Paris Prefecture Police Headquarters sits directly across from Notre-Dame and served as a command center the night the cathedral burned. As sirens blared and firefighters worried that Notre-Dame might collapse, a day care center inside the police building was hurriedly closed, for fear it could be crushed by falling debris.
Within days, the day care center, which was for the children of officers, was tested for lead. In some areas, like the “millipede playroom,” the tests found lead levels up to 2.5 times the French standard for buildings hosting children, according to a confidential police document.
The report offers evidence that the French authorities were aware of the threat of lead contamination within days of the fire but kept quiet.
The officers’ children were moved to a second day care center farther away from Notre-Dame, in another building of the headquarters. As many as 80 children would play in this second day care center in the coming weeks. But it turned out that second building was contaminated, too.
New tests revealed more alarming results, which were initially kept from officers, and from the general public. Police authorities did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
At the second day care center, more than 20 measurements showed lead levels at or above the threshold for buildings hosting children. They included the “goblins” playroom and rooms where nurses fed children with baby bottles.
Windows in the building had been left open during the fire, according to the confidential police report. Other tests found at least six offices were contaminated with lead levels up to 17 times higher than the regulatory threshold.
Experts said the officers could have been vulnerable both to inhaling the dust as it swirled during the fire and ingesting it afterward.
“We kept hearing rumors in corridors that made us worried,” said one officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of police guidelines, and whose 2-year-old daughter was one of the children who used the playroom.
In early May, city officials finally closed the second day care center for decontamination and informed officers of the situation.
But still no broader alarm was sounded.
“We took measures immediately and closed our own day care centers for a month and a half,” said Frédéric Guillo, a police officer and representative at the C.G.T., one of France’s largest unions.
“Why didn’t public authorities do anything for the other ones?” he asked.
One problem is that different messages were coming from different government agencies.
On May 9, the Regional Health Agency released a reassuring statement to the public, merely confirming ‘‘the presence of lead dust in the immediate surroundings of the cathedral.’’
At the same time, officials from the Culture Ministry, responsible for Notre-Dame’s reconstruction, were playing down the risks in a meeting with public health authorities, labor inspectors, police and local officials, according to one person who attended.
Antoine-Marie Préaut, a regional conservator at the Culture Ministry, denied that and said the authorities took the concerns seriously. “We haven’t been downplaying the risk over lead contamination,” he said in a telephone interview.
The city’s public schools and day care centers near Notre-Dame remained open for weeks after the fire. In early May, city officials issued ‘‘recommendations’’ for cleaning at schools around the cathedral but offered little guidance to parents.
Then, without any public notice, the city began conducting the first tests for lead at public primary schools in mid-May. Ms. Souyris, the deputy mayor, said it was up to the heads of schools to inform parents of the tests. Some did but others did not, The Times found.
During the next two weeks, nine primary schools and day care centers close to Notre-Dame were tested — six of which had lead levels up to 2.5 times the regulatory threshold.
Schools closed for the summer in July, and public anxiety began to mount. In early July, Mediapart, a French investigative website, published the first leaked documents about lead concerns in and near Notre-Dame. Parents demanded greater clarity about the risks, and environmental groups sounded alarms.
Earlier, the regional health agency had “invited” pregnant women and children under 7 to have their lead levels tested. Now the agency focused on schools, widening the perimeter of concern and the number of schools for testing.
As results came in, it became clear that more and more schools had alarming levels of lead.
By then, children had already left for summer vacation, though some schools around Notre-Dame continued to operate as summer camps.
In at least 18 day care centers, preschools and primary schools, tests revealed lead levels over the recommended threshold. Two schools being used as summer camps were closed after tests revealed alarming lead levels.
At one, Saint-Benoît, in the Sixth Arrondissement — just across the Seine, on the Left Bank — several places in the school and its playground showed lead levels up to seven times recommended levels.
Among the rooms over the threshold was the cafeteria, where children are likely to put their hands in their mouths and on their food.
Because Saint-Benoît and most other schools had not conducted tests for lead before the fire, city authorities have warned that high levels could have other historical causes.
“It’s highly unlikely that the levels found at Saint-Benoît were linked to the fire,” argued Ariel Weil, the mayor of the city’s Fourth Arrondissement, home to the cathedral. But he added, “If Notre-Dame has triggered an overall cleaning of Paris, so much the better.” The head of the school did not respond to requests for comment.
Whatever the source of the lead, in early August, workers in full, white protective outfits sprayed blue gel on the schoolyard’s asphalt before tearing it up.
It remains unclear why all schools in the area were not tested sooner. Many of the test results were made public only after public pressure mounted. A few weeks later, in late July, a French environmental group filed a lawsuit against the government over its delayed response.
In a telephone interview, Ms. Souyris, the Paris deputy mayor in charge of public health, said local authorities had not publicized the test results because they wanted to coordinate with state officials. She also said, as do some other officials, that a city as old as Paris has a lead problem that long predates the Notre-Dame fire.
“We are facing a widespread issue around lead,” Ms. Souyris said. “It goes beyond Notre-Dame, but since there is no norm for public spaces, we need a bigger plan against lead in Paris.’’
With some exceptions, lead regulations in France are guidelines, not legally binding rules. That makes them essentially, optional.
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