In The Wake Of The Notre-Dame Fire, Experts Made A Disturbing Discovery

In April 2019, the world looked on in horror as Notre-Dame, one of the world’s most iconic places of worship, was engulfed in flames. This was no ordinary fire. It left the building almost completely destroyed, along with the countless pieces of history within. Then, one year later, as experts were in the process of renovating the Gothic beams and arches of Notre-Dame de Paris, a discovery was made amid the piles of ash and debris that can only be described as disturbing.

The Beginning Of The End

Notre-Dame on fire
FABIEN BARRAU/AFP via Getty Images
FABIEN BARRAU/AFP via Getty Images

On April 15, 2019, everything seemed to be in order at Notre-Dame de Paris. However, that was until the early evening set in. This was when an alarm notified the staff that there was a fire somewhere in the historic cathedral.

After evacuating everyone inside, they rushed to try and put out the fire before it could spread, only to realize that it wasn’t where they thought it was. By the time they pinpointed the location of the fire, it was already beginning to grow out of control.

A Nightmare That Became A Reality

Notre-Dame on Christmas
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

For those in charge of the cathedral, as well as experts and history buffs, this was a situation that they had long feared. With parts of the structure dating all the way back to the twelfth century, the stonework in many of the areas was already incredibly vulnerable.

Up top, a lot of the attic, spire, and oak beams from centuries ago had dried out, making the entire cathedral susceptible to a devastating fire.

There Were Frequent Check-Ups On The Building

Roof on fire
GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP via Getty Images
GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP via Getty Images

By April 2019, the possibility of a fire breaking out was a major concern, to the point that the building was being monitored by fire wardens on several occasions each day.

Unfortunately, all these precautions didn’t stop the fire from breaking out. The cause is believed to have been the result of an electrical issue. For more than three hours, Parisians, and the world, watched as flames burned through the roof of this historic landmark.

Saving Artifacts

People watching the fire
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty Images
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty Images

As the fire continued to get worse, hundreds of firefighters worked tirelessly in hopes of getting it under control. In the meantime, the emergency services formed a human chain in order to remove any artifacts that they could safely reach from inside of the building.

However, despite the firefighter’s efforts, the fire was too big to handle. By the time the flames were finally extinguished, the once-grand cathedral was a shadow of its former glory.

Seeing The Real Damage

Destruction of the building
Chesnot/Getty Images
Chesnot/Getty Images

By the time the sun rose the next morning, it showed the severe damage that the fire had done to Notre-Dame. During the blaze, around two-thirds of the cathedral’s roof had been destroyed, and the spire built in the 19th century had completely fallen.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, as the spire fell, it pierced the ceiling of the vault below, which exposed the building’s interior to the fire. It truly was a disaster.

Breaking News

Building on fire
Chesnot/Getty Images
Chesnot/Getty Images

As the citizens of Paris grieved for the loss of one of the city’s greatest structures, news outlets around the world broke the news about the destruction of such an iconic cathedral.

Across the globe, reporters scrambled to find out as many details as they could about what had started the fire, the number of artifacts that were lost, and just how bad the damage truly was. During this time, many people were still in shock that such a travesty could happen.

The Cathedral Held Some Of Christianity’s Greatest Artifacts

Crown Of Thorns
Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Considering that Notre-Dame is one of the most well-known places of worship for the Christian faith, it’s no surprise that it held some of the religion’s greatest artifacts.

At the time of the fire, the cathedral supposedly housed the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ, as well as a piece of the ancient wood that is said to have come from the cross that Jesus was crucified on.

More Than Just Religious Relics

Picture of the organ
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

Although the relics inside the cathedral are incredibly important to millions of people around the world, they weren’t the only things that people were concerned about. Inside the cathedral, there was also Notre-Dame’s 18th-century organ that is so impressive, musicians have to register years in advance for a chance to play it.

On top of that, there are also the countless statues, some dating back to the 1300s, and the Mays paintings, that were gifted to the cathedral between 1630 and 1700.

There Was A Silver Lining

Man watching the fire
GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP via Getty Images
GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP via Getty Images

Although the burning of the church was devastating to the world, the worst-case scenario never happened. Incredibly, some of Notre-Dame’s most famous pieces of art weren’t even in the building when the fire broke out.

Toward the end of 2018, there was repair work taking place at the cathedral. As a result, a number of items had been taken out in order to prevent damage and ensure their safekeeping until they could be securely returned.

More Good News

Charred remains inside the building
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

Besides many of the art pieces being removed from the vault, many of Notre-Dame’s most prized treasures were located within the sacristy, a nearby building that wasn’t damaged by the blaze.

Furthermore, many of the artifacts that were within the burning cathedral were saved by the rescue workers that worked as a team to get as many out as they could. Not all of the precious items in the building could be saved, however.

Of Course, Not Everything Could Be Saved

Interior of the cathedral
AMAURY BLIN/AFP via Getty Images
AMAURY BLIN/AFP via Getty Images

The Observatory for Religious Heritage’s secretary general, Maxime Cumunel, spoke with Reuters in 2019. He said, “We avoided a complete disaster. But some five to 10 percent of the artwork has probably been destroyed, [and] we have to face up to that.”

As the smoke-damaged paintings were eventually removed from the ruins of the cathedral, the harsh reality of the situation finally began to set in. Nevertheless, the world banded together to help the city of Paris deal with its loss.

In Came The Donations

Rebuilding of the cathedral
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In the days and weeks following the inferno, a multitude of organizations, companies, and individuals came forward to provide generous donations to help pay for the restoration of Notre-Dame.

For example, one French businessman, Bernard Arnault, donated a whopping $200 million toward the cause. However, while donations keep coming in, experts believe it will cost billions of dollars to return the cathedral to its former glorious state.

Starting To Rebuild

Picture of Emmauel Macron
Leon Neal/Getty Images
Leon Neal/Getty Images

After the fire had finally died, the restoration experts began to sift their way through what was now a shell of Notre-Dame. However, they had to be careful, as the building was still incredibly unstable from the fire, and there was no guarantee that the roof wasn’t going to collapse on top of their heads.

It was at this time that French President Emmanuel Macron announced that he promised that the iconic cathedral would be reconstructed.

There Was Still Hope

Picture of Notre-Dame
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

At the beginning of the restoration project, the specialists involved were impressed by just how many of the cathedral’s relics had been spared by the flames.

In a 2020 interview with Science magazine, Aline Magnien from the Historical Monuments Research Laboratory explained, “What matters isn’t the roof and vault so much as the sanctuary they protect. The heart of Notre-Dame has been saved.” So, essentially, the building can be restored while what it protects cannot.

Rebuilding Would Be No Easy Task

Man with a statue
Chesnot/Getty Images
Chesnot/Getty Images

Of course, after such a devastating fire, it was clear to everyone involved that the restoration of the cathedral would be a massive undertaking. For Magnien’s team at LRMH, the first task in the project was to try and stop any further damage from taking place.

Then, once that is completed, the team of 23 experts were going to use their collective knowledge to help inform constructors on how best to rebuild the church.

The Problems Were Piling Up

Working on the cathedral roof
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP via Getty Images
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP via Getty Images

While the experts knew that there would be significant hurdles they’d encounter on the way, there were actually more problems than they originally thought. For example, one of the first issues that the team faced was reaching the cathedral’s damaged stonework.

They concluded that climbing to the top of the vault could cause the entire structure to collapse, which is the last thing they wanted. Furthermore, by observing it from underneath, it could put them at risk from tumbling debris.

Thinking Outside The Box

Cathedral on fire
Chesnot/Getty Images
Chesnot/Getty Images

This resulted in the researchers being unable to determine just how unstable the ruins of Notre-Dame were. However, they were quick to figure out other methods. They soon discovered that they could get a sense of the damage by analyzing the color of the stonework, which could produce some surprising information.

According to the team, the limestone blocks used to build the church take on a different hue depending on the temperatures they had been exposed to.

How It Works

Picture of Notre Dame
JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images
JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

For example, between the temperatures 570°F and 750°F, the iron in limestone decomposes, leaving behind an obvious shade of red. However, as the temperatures rise even further, the color even turns to black.

Finally, at around 1000°F the blocks are reduced to little more than powder. With this knowledge, researchers were able to determine the sturdiness of each individual stone just by identifying its color. This was crucial in deciding how to handle the reconstruction project.

They Had To Worry About Water As Well As Fire

Fighting the fire
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

Incredibly, fire wasn’t the only issue that the team faced, but the opposite element of water as well. After the fire, a significant amount of water had made its way into the ruins of Notre-Dame.

During the blaze, the firefighters had been instructed to aim their water away from the fragile, timeless stained-glass windows. However, they couldn’t do the same for the stone vault, as the flames would have engulfed entirely it otherwise.

The Water Helped Both Save And Destroy The Cathedral

Fighting the fire
ZAKARIA ABDELKAFI/AFP via Getty Images
ZAKARIA ABDELKAFI/AFP via Getty Images

As the firefighters turned their hoses toward the limestone walls of the cathedral, the old and porous material absorbed a lot of the water, which resulted many of the stones increasing in weight.

Over a year later, researchers claim that a fair amount of the stones still haven’t completely dried out. What’s even worse, the water in the stones is known to expand and contract depending on the temperature, further weakening the already unstable structure.

A Promise From The President

Man working on the cathedral
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

Today, work on the fragile cathedral continues on in hopes of returning it to its formal glory. The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, has promised that the cathedral would be ready for the public to enter as early as 2024.

Yet, during the reconstruction process, experts have also been enjoying themselves investigating the landmark that has defined Paris for hundreds of years. Despite the tragedy of the fire, they have been able to get an insight into the structure that few have ever been able to before.

Stepping Into The Past

Roof of the cathedral
Chesnot/Getty Images
Chesnot/Getty Images

Philippe Dillmann, a metal specialist working with LRMH, told Science magazine, “We’re sorting through thousands of fragments-some from our world, some from another and more ancient world. And it’s like we’re communicating with the Middle Ages.”

For the historians working on the reconstruction, this is like a dream come true, as they get to be up-close and personal with pieces of history in a way that few people have before. There is also a lot of studying of the techniques that the 13th-century stonemasons used to build the cathedral.

The Attic Wasn’t A Total Loss

Cathedral burning
GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP via Getty Images
GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP via Getty Images

Incredibly, the destruction of Notre-Dame’s wasn’t as big a loss as many might imagine. According to experts, after analyzing the remaining beams, it was discovered that the wood used was grown-to-order in a dedicated forest.

And, by testing the age of the wood, they came to the conclusion that the construction of the cathedral had been in the works for at least a century before the first brick was even laid. Clearly, people had big plans for the finished product.

The Cathedral Wasn’t The Only Thing That Was Harmed

Roof on fire
-/AFP via Getty Images
-/AFP via Getty Images

While it may appear that the burning of Notre-Dame wasn’t as severe as it could have been, the cathedral wasn’t the only thing to suffer from the fire. The citizens of Paris weren’t so lucky.

Apparently, as the roof of the cathedral burned, massive quantities of poisonous lead melted and was released into the atmosphere. The worst part is, however, is that these air pockets of toxic lead have yet to be traced.

The Dangers Of Lead

Man holding lead
Oliver Llaneza Hesse/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images
Oliver Llaneza Hesse/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Despite that the cathedral is centuries old, lead can still be found on the roof of some structures today. Nevertheless, it’s toxic, and exposure to it in some circumstances can result in a series of physical and neurological ailments.

Exposure to lead can also lead to behavioral issues as well as infertility, seizures, and even death. So, it wasn’t long before the city of Paris realized they had a bigger problem on their hands than Notre-Dame burning down.

Concern From The People

Cathedral on fire
FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images
FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images

In the aftermath of the Notre-Dame fire, many Parisians grew concerned that the lead that was released from the roof may have contaminated several areas surrounding the cathedral.

At first, however, the science was comforting and helped give the people some peace. According to metallurgist Aurélia Azéma, a section chief at LRMH, the fire didn’t reach the temperatures necessary to reduce the material to poisonous gas.

Much Of The Lead Remained In The Cathedral

Roof on fire
HUBERT HITIER/AFP via Getty Images
HUBERT HITIER/AFP via Getty Images

Although the lead that many feared had been released into the atmosphere didn’t, it was still within the cathedral. Much of the lead on the roof had reached a high enough temperature to melt and then harden to form stalactites.

Officials declined to issue a public warning about the lead, leading many of the city’s citizens to believe that they were safe. However, a far different story was being played out behind the scenes of the Notre-Dame fire.

Spectators Saw Something Strange

Yellow color from fire
GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP via Getty Images
GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP via Getty Images

Some witnesses who watched on as Notre-Dame burned later claimed that they had seen a yellow haze begin to form over the cathedral as the fire raged on.

Then, according to experts, the fire did reach high enough temperatures at which lead could combine with oxygen, therefore creating an aerosol effect. So, it seems as if at least a portion of the toxic substance did make its way out of the roof of the cathedral and into the atmosphere around Paris.

Where Did It Go?

Picture of cathedral burning at night
Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images
Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

So the question remained, where did this lead-filled air go? This was hard to pinpoint considering the wind and numerous other factors on that fateful day. To make matters worse, authorities didn’t test the neighborhoods around the cathedral for several weeks. When they did, their worst fears became a reality.

A number of local schools in the surrounding area had a significant amount of lead. Furthermore, in other recreational areas, there were readings of more than 60 times than the recommended limit.

A Potential Cover-Up

FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images
FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images

Because lead is such a toxic material, French law indicates that only trace amounts of it are allowed to be used when constructing modern buildings.

There have been rumors since the Notre-Dame fire that officials have intended to cover up the dangerous amounts of lead that were released into the air, and they announced that there was nothing to worry about. In a 2019 report by The New York Times, the risk was known a few days after the fire, but the authorities failed to act accordingly.

An Investigation Begins

Burned roof
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images

In September 2019, representatives from Robin Hood, an environmentalist organization based in France, presented some questionable news. Understandably, residents from an apartment complex located approximately one mile from Notre-Dame requested to have some lead tests conducted at their property to see if the rumors were true.

The testing results showed that on their balcony, there were levels of lead around twenty times the recommended and safe limit. This meant that the city of Paris had a serious problem on their hands.

The Cat Was Out Of The Bag

Notre-Dame on fire
Chesnot/Getty Images
Chesnot/Getty Images

Not only was lead found in nearby residences, but lead content eight times the legal limit was also detected at a Paris police station. In a 2019 interview with The Daily Telegraph, union representative Frédéric Guillo expressed his concerns.

He commented, “It proves once again that the lead contamination caused by Notre-Dame fire is a serious, long-term problem that authorities need to protect their citizens from.” It seems that the city and its residents had far more to be concerned about than losing one of their most treasured landmarks.

Parisians Were Concerned

Interior of cathedral
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

Rightfully so, the citizens were concerned about the lead in the air, especially after they were finally told that the rumor had in fact been true the whole time.

Yet, experts still had to deal with Notre-Dame, which at this point was ground zero for the toxic leak. Furthermore, metallurgist Aurélia Azéma also detected traces of lead throughout the cathedral and even in places such as the pipes in the organ.

A Shocking Discovery

Burned down roof
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

Among the ruins of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, wood specialist Emmanuel Maurin, who also leads a team with LRMG, ran tests on the wooden surfaces as well as other materials. When analyzing the results from his tests, he was shocked to learn that the levels of lead on the surfaces were around 70 times the recommended limit.

What was so alarming about this is that those that had been working in the cathedral for months hadn’t been wearing the proper protection.

Massive Strides Have Been Made In The Right Direction

Man working on cathedral
THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images
THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images

Thankfully, by March of 2020, the entire process of rebuilding the church had been changed. Now, researchers working at Notre-Dame are obligated to undergo serious decontamination procedures and are expected to follow several other rules.

For example, researchers are only allowed a maximum of two and a half hours inside of the cathedral, after which they must throw away the disposable garments they put on upon entering. Furthermore, they are then required to take a shower, an act that some do up to five times a day.

The Fire Might Not Have Been The Problem

Drawing of the cathedral
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although the researchers are forced to follow these strict guidelines to do their job, there are those that believe Notre-Dame has been releasing toxic chemicals into the environment for years.

For example, even before the fire, it’s thought that rainwater may have been washing lead and other toxic materials off the roof into the nearby Seine river. As a result, the ecosystem in the area could have been undergoing continuous contamination for hundreds of years.

Other Sources Of Lead

Aerial view of the cathedral
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Some experts believe that could be other sources of lead, not from Notre-Dame, that could be affecting the lead levels around Paris. Some of these include the use of gasoline and toxic paint.

However, people still want to know how much of the lead can actually be traced back to the cathedral. To solve this mystery, scientist Sophie Ayrault has plans to compare the samples taken at Notre-Dame and compare them to other samples collected around Paris. This investigation is still yet to occur.

Removing The Dangerous Lead

Man checking for lead
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

Currently, the team at LRMH has been working hard, trying to find the safest way to remove the lead traces from the ruins of Notre-Dame. Although they have come up with countless theories, some of their main ideas include using a special putty to extract the toxic mater and then using lasers to clean the porous stones.

However, according to geologist Véronique Vergès-Belmin, the process will likely have to involve a number of different methods.

Notre-Dame Is Still Expected To Open Eventually

Picture of the cathedral
Estelle Ruiz/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Estelle Ruiz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As reported by The Guardian back in April 2019, Macron promised that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt “more beautiful than before.” Now, researchers at LRHM agree with the president about his claim.

When speaking to Science magazine, Magnien claimed, “Notre-Dame will come out of this experience enriched. And so will we.” With that being said, if it’s proven that the increased levels of lead in Paris can be attributed to the fire, people may not be so anxious to go back.

A Possible Blessing In Disguise

 Parisians and tourists gathered around the cathedral
Nicolas Liponne/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Nicolas Liponne/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Although the fire that engulfed Notre-Dame is an utter catastrophe, it could very well be a blessing in disguise. It’s clear that the building was full of lead both on the inside and out, and the toxic material may never been discovered otherwise.

This may help spur experts to begin investigating other historical sites to ensure that they are safe for tourists to come and visit. If not, the necessary precautions must be taken to protect the people and eventually reopen.