PARIS (AFP) - Pressure rose on French authorities on Monday (July 29) after an environmental group said it had filed a lawsuit accusing officials of failing to quickly contain the risks of lead poisoning after the fire that ravaged Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris last April.
Worries about exposure to the toxic metal emerged shortly after the disaster, which saw hundreds of tonnes of lead in the church roof and steeple melt during the blaze.
That dispersed lead particles into the air that later settled on streets and buildings in surrounding neighbourhoods, though officials had insisted there was no danger to residents.
But last Thursday, city officials indefinitely shut two schools near the gothic landmark after tests revealed high levels of lead pollution on a shared playground.
Cleanup work at Notre-Dame was also halted after the top government official in the Paris region acknowledged that anti-contamination measures were insufficient.
The moves came in the wake of a media report alleging that authorities had covered up tests showing high lead pollution levels in nearby schools.
"The relevent authorities, including the diocese... neglected to assist residents, visitors and workers, allowing them to be exposed to the toxic fallout," the Robin des Bois (Robin Hood) NGO said in the lawsuit filed on Friday.
It accuses health agencies, government officials and the city of Paris of "deliberately putting people in danger" by not immediately taking measures to limit exposure to the contamination.
Ingesting lead particles can cause neurological defects as well as nervous system and kidney problems, in particular in children, who are more likely to touch contaminated objects and to put their fingers in their mouths.
Around 180 children had been attending a summer holiday club at the nursery and primary schools on the Rue Saint-Benoit, before they were shut.
French investigative website Mediapart reported this month that high levels of lead had been detected in schools and daycare centres surrounding Notre-Dame.
Mediapart said the authorities had waited until a month after the fire before conducting tests in the 10 schools and daycares within 500 metres of the monument on the Ile de la Cite island in central Paris.
One test result, at the private Sainte-Catherine primary school, showed 698 microgrammes of lead per square metre, 10 times higher than the 70-microgramme level considered potentially dangerous, it said.
Prefect Michel Cadot, the government's top official for the Paris region, told reporters last week that strict controls should have been in place in the heavily contaminated interior of the cathedral, as well as in surrounding areas.
Cadot said the square in front of the cathedral, usually bustling with thousands of tourists and pilgrims, would be cleaned with a high-powered system that had been tested on a small area close to church.
The cathedral as well as the square in front and other nearby areas have been off-limits since the fire.
Parents and local officials have stepped up their criticism of how authorities have addressed the potential risks following the decision to close the schools, more than three months after the disaster.
Paris officials have vowed a "deep clean" of all schools near Notre-Dame, with walls and furniture to be wiped and playgrounds hosed down while most children are away during the summer holidays.
They have also rejected claims of withholding or playing down the test findings, saying the high lead levels detected at nearby schools have been posted on the municipal website.
But outside the two schools closed last Thursday, several parents seethed at the notice informing them of the closures, which made no mention of lead risks.
"She told me, 'We don't have any visibility'," Lamine, the father of two boys, told AFP after he spoke with a city agent posted outside the school.
Florence Berthout, mayor of the city's Fifth Arrondissement, where the schools are located, has urged Mayor Anne Hidalgo to protectively block access to all schools within 500 metres of the site.
Cadot added last week that "all precautions must be taken" at the cathedral itself to protect the workers clearing and shoring up the gutted 850-year-old building, which is still in danger of collapsing.