twenty years after the closure of Metaleurop, lead continues to wreak havoc

For nearly a year, journalists from the “Vert de rage” investigative program (France 5) investigated lead pollution around the former Nord foundry, closed in 2003. The results were presented to residents and elected officials on Friday 29th. April, in Evin-Malmaison.

This Thursday, April 29, around 100 residents and elected officials gathered in the town hall of Evin-Malmaison, Pas-de-Calais. They came to hear the presentation of the results of the investigation by the team of the investigative program of “Vert de rage” (France 5), dedicated to lead pollution linked to the activity of the old Metaleurop foundry, located two steps, in the commune of Noyelles-Godault.

Lead in schools, playgrounds, stadiums or gardens … The conclusion is clear: heavy metal is everywhere. “It’s an environmental drama”, says Martin Boudot, the director of the documentary. “The results are rather alarming”, Bruno Adolphi abounds, the president of the PIGE association, who has been fighting for the ecological damage caused by the activity of the metallurgical plant.

Metaleurop closed its doors in 2003, leaving behind 830 employees … and irreversible pollution of the environment with lead and cadmium. The factory, classified as Seveso, was the largest lead producer in Europe at the time. Up to 130,000 tons were produced here every year, as well as zinc and sulfuric acid.

Currently, the area around the industrial site is considered the most polluted in France and extends over 650 hectares. Three municipalities mainly affected: Noyelles-Godault, Courcelles-lès-Lens and Evin-Malmaison, the most affected, because they are located on the main axis of a prevailing wind.

Although the degraded environmental situation has been known for some time, this survey has updated, confirmed and consolidated the data on the consequences of this large-scale pollution. Conclusion: Even twenty years after the closure of metallurgy, lead still occupies the soil, plants and bodies at very high levels. At the risk of the health of the inhabitants.

For nearly a year, the “Vert de rage” team has been analyzing the presence of lead in three different locations. First on the grounds of the municipality of Evin-Malmaison (vegetable gardens, kindergarten, playgrounds, stadium, site of the former factory, etc.). Then, in vegetables and aromatic plants grown by individuals. Finally, in the hair of 29 children and 21 adults living in Evin-Malmaison.

As for the soils, the results are uplifting. In the former Metaleurop site, lead concentrations are 774 times higher than the evacuation threshold, according to current regulations. In Evin-Malmaison gardens, rates are 3.6 to 5.7 times the evacuation threshold. They cross this same threshold in some structures that welcome children, such as the Françoise Dolto school or the Gérard Houiller stadium.

When lead levels exceed this evacuation threshold, the Haut Conseil de la Santé Publique (HCSP) recommends “carry out systematic screening for lead poisoning in childhood (acute lead poisoning ed)“. According to Martin Boudot, the director, “no screening has been conducted since 2012”.

Another field of analysis for this survey: the gardens of Evin-Malmaison. In this municipality of the mining basin, workers’ houses with a small plot of land are numerous and conducive to horticulture. Leeks and thyme leaves were taken from different gardens, then analyzed in the medical biology laboratory of the APHP Lariboisière, under the supervision of a toxicologist.

Even in the most polluted areas, people eat what they grow indoors

Youssef Bouya, resident of Evin-Malmaison and city councilor

Results, thyme leaves in the most exposed gardens have a lead content 91 times higher than normal. For leeks, grown in the same place, this level exceeds the norm by 80 times. This, even after conventional vegetable washing.

How many Evinois continue to feed on what they grow in their garden? “Even in the most polluted areas, people eat what they grow at home, assures Youssef Bouya, resident of Evin-Malmaison and city councilor. Because for years we have not asked ourselves the question and even today there is little talk about it.

Last important part of this investigation: the hair analysis in 29 children by Evin-Malmaison. This was done in collaboration with an environmental toxicology laboratory in Canada. Two areas of the hair were studied: the capitular bulb (to quantify the lead content in the blood) and the 1st centimeter from the root (to know the environmental exposure in the last month).

Therefore, in these children, the concentration of lead in the 1st centimeter of the hair is on average 1.381% higher than in the bulb. “It is difficult to draw conclusions on these levels because there is a lack of references to compare with the average child in France, Martin Boudot explains. But these results indicate that it would be necessary to evaluate the current environmental exposure, because since 2005 the screening has not been carried out by the health authorities among the children in the area.

For the first time, an estimate in this territory of the number of lead poisoning cases – name given tolead poisoning – was carried out, and the figures, published by the director. These show that between 1962 and 2020, in the cities of Evin-Malmaison, Courcelles-lès-Lens and Noyelles-Godault, according to the thresholds set before 2014, 1,673 children were affected by this disease. In the same geographical area, but taking into account the new standard, the number would rise to 5,815 children.

The less advantage we have, the better we are.

Jean-Marie Haguenoer, toxicologist and professor emeritus

Lead poisoning is especially dangerous for children and can cause following irreversible (damage to the nervous system, encephalopathy and neuropathy). There is a correlation between the presence of high-level lead and a loss of Qi points in children. And even in low doses, it can cause harmful effects. “The less lead we have, the better we are”, summarizes the toxicologist and professor emeritus, Jean-Marie Haguenoer.

So what to do in the face of this troubling observation? Before this investigative work, voices had already been raised to denounce this environmental tragedy. “It’s an old fight we’ve been fighting since the 80s, notes Gilles Waterlot, member of the PIGE association and former elected representative of Evin Malmaison. We thought the discovery of poisoning cases would stop in time, but that’s not the case.

In 2018, 87 inhabitants of the municipality filed a complaint to seek compensation for the loss of anxiety related to their presence in the heavily contaminated area. An appeal rejected by the Administrative Court of Lille, “for lack of sufficiently proven damage”, explains David Deharbe, the plaintiff’s attorney. The latter has filed an appeal, the application is in progress.

The action, or rather the inertia of the state, is reported by several local actors, associations or elected officials. “The state has renounced its commitments”, deplores Sabine Van Heghe, senator from Pas-de-Calais. During a parliamentary session, on November 12, 2019, the elected spoke with Elisabeth Borne, Minister for Ecological and Inclusive Transition, accusing the state of having “happy to see the damage caused by the extent of the pollution, without taking all measures to avoid it “. The senator summed up the answer: “The minister said that everything has been done to clean up the soil. This is unacceptable.”

Director Martin Boudot’s documentary will air on France 5 at the beginning of the next school year (September or October), on the “Vert de rage” program.

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