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Dangerous lead levels slow work on Notre Dame

Clean-up work on Notre Dame Cathedral and its neighborhood is scheduled to resume today after government monitors indicated lead levels are at life-threatening levels and halted work on Monday.

One of France’s largest labor unions is calling for a containment shield and other safety measures to ensure decontamination work at Christianity’s most iconic structure does not expose workers and residents to unsafe levels of lead. The lead was used heavily in the construction and placement of the stained glass windows when the structure was built 1,200 years ago.

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The structure was severely damaged this spring in suspicious circumstances when a fire broke out in the roof. Dozens of churches across Europe have have been the subject of vandalism and suspicious fires in the last 8 months.  Leaders of various Christian denominations have called for investigations to look at terrorism as the reason. Those incidents have gone largely unreported in the American press and the French government as gone silent on the status of the investigation.

But regardless of the cause, dangerous restoration work continues.

The Paris regional administration suspended the job of removing hazardous substances from the fire-ravaged cathedral last month under pressure from labor inspectors.

Paris authorities also ordered new checks of schools and day care centers in the Notre Dame neighborhood and recommended blood tests for children under age 7 and pregnant women who live nearby.

The administration had said that when the lead-removal work resumes, stricter safety procedures, new equipment and allowing much fewer workers inside at a time would “prevent any release of polluting elements to the outside.”

They asked for a regularly updated chart showing the level of lead in the air. Labor and environmental groups are also pushing for the creation of a medical center to monitor of firefighters, workers and residents.

Paris Deputy Mayor Anne Souyris said updated measurements of lead levels are set for release on Tuesday.

Decontamination has moved to the streets around the structure, including the square in front of Notre Dame and adjacent streets, Sours said.

Hundreds of tons of lead that was in Notre Dame’s spire and roof melted during the April 15 fire, which came close to destroying the cathedral.

Lead levels remain elevated at some spots inside and in the soil of the adjacent park and forecourt, according to the Paris regional health agency. Those areas have been closed to the public since the fire.

The environmental activists and union officials said they want a containment shield built over Notre Dame to keep more lead from being released into the atmosphere.

“For the efficiency of the decontamination measures within the area, it is absolutely necessary that the site is confined”, Annie Thebaud-Mony, co-founder of health and environment group Henri Pezerat, said.

Notre Dame rector Patrick Chalet acknowledged that lead can escape into the environment from a big hole in the cathedral’s roof but ruled out building a containment shield before the decontamination work resumes.

–Wire services