Towards a lead ban in Europe? Stained glass artisans fear that their profession will disappear

Sweden has called for a ban on lead within the European Union. The topic is being studied and is the subject of a public consultation. Stained glass professionals are very concerned: this material is essential for their work.

When he talks about his encounter with stained glass, Serge Nouailhat speaks of a “providential story of my life“. This profession, which he has practiced for thirty years now, describes it as”a crucial crossroads“between manual labor and creation”.We receive material from reality as much as we will give it through our inspiration. It feeds each other“, Explains the“ glass painter ”in his studio in Mortain, in the Manche department.

Serge’s stained glass windows can be admired all over the world, from Normandy to Siberia. The craftsman works glass mainly for creations, creations that, since the Middle Ages, have relied on another material: lead. “It is a very flexible material and quite resistant over time. (a stained glass window should only be restored every 100-150 years according to professionals), which can be cut with a knife and can be adapted to different glass thicknesses. It is part of the artistic creation to choose the width of your lead. Depending on the width, we will have very different graphic effects.

Yet lead does not have a good press and tends to gradually disappear from our daily lives, from children’s toys to gasoline and jewelry. The harmful effects of this heavy metal on the health of the environment have been known for many years. Andcephalopathies, neuropathies, digestive disorders, kidney disorders, reproductive and developmental disorders in children, the list of disorders caused by inhalation or ingestion of lead is enough to make you shiver and can be summed up in one word, poisoning by lead, lead poisoning that still affected 4,700 children a dozen years ago. Twenty years earlier there were 85,000. This substantial reduction in the number of cases was due in particular to the various measures aimed at reducing exposure to lead. Some would like to go even further.

This is the case of Sweden which, in 2018, requested the inclusion of lead in Annex 14 of the REACH regulation, the European regulation that defines the production and use of chemicals in the food industry of the European Union. Annex 14 lists the products whose use is subject to authorization. For affected products, the ban becomes the rule. An impossible prospect for stained glass craftsmen. “If it is forbidden, I can no longer make stained glass“, launches, categorical, Serge Nouailhat,”In creation, it is finished. In the restoration, it means that all the French heritage, which represents 60% of the world’s stained glass windows, is abandoned.

Jean Mône, the president of the glass union chamber does not say the opposite: “The stained glass windows are our history. And continuing to create stained glass is creating the legacy of tomorrow. If today we can no longer make stained glass, in 500 years there will be none.“So, since 2018, the professional organization has been trying to alert institutions to this problem and is organizing itself (for example by collaborating with the federation of glass and crystal) to better defend its cause”.The world of stained glass windows is a small world. There are about 1200 laboratories with an average of two and a half people per laboratory. We have a very large laboratory with about twenty people. It is not a factory of 500 people.

A small world and quantities of lead used that would be just as small. “We are a bit of collateral damage from car batteries since the object, from what we understand, is the elimination of lead-acid batteries in Europe”, indicates Jean Mône, “(the window) which represents 100 tons of lead per year in France. It’s not much, a drop in an ocean. “

The harmfulness of lead, the artisans do not contest it but the good practices of the profession oppose it. “Practitioners are subject to the rules in the workshops (protective equipment) and check“remembers Serge Nouailhat.”In the world of stained glass, while we have direct contact with this material, since I became president of the Chambre Syndicale there has been no interruption of work for a stained glass employee.“, assures Jean Mône,”We now have all the protocols, all the protocols to prevent the dangers of lead.

All protections, according to these professionals, but no alternatives. “No suitable substitute has yet been found to replace lead“, assures the president of the syndical chamber of stained glass windows.”Research is currently underway on a material that contains 98% tin. The problem is that pewter is much harder to work with. And it’s nine times more expensive today, even ten times more than lead. We search but we have not found“. As reported by our colleagues from France 3 Grand Est, the European Center for Research and Training in the Glass Arts (CERFAV) in Vannes-le-Châtel, in Meurthe-et-Moselle, is working on alternative solutions. But this research would take several years to be successful. In Mortain, Serge Nouailhat recalls that new lead-free glass paints have emerged to replace grisaille. “It is satisfying“, observes the glass painter before adding: “But we’ll see if in 1000 years they are still attached to the glass, the ones they used on our cathedrals are still there.

From this point of view, the glass sector can still defend it. Since last February, ECHA, the European chemical agency, has launched a public consultation. “Need to remove lead in many places“, admits Jean Mône,”But we must also see which professions they cannot do without.“The whole challenge for this profession is to integrate a list of exceptions. “Europe is a great machine that will ban lead in all sectors except those that have shown that there is no substitute and that the advantage for Europe is greater by keeping lead rather than removing it.“. As for the stained glass windows, the president of the union chamber begs.”So we have to mobilize. “

The professional organization therefore makes various tools available to its members to enable them to participate. “In these institutions it is never easy, they are very technical terms and if you are not accompanied it is difficult to answer, even if you have the will.. ” And he also tries to mobilize beyond his base. “Every citizen can answer, it’s a public consultation”recalls Jean Mône, “There must be many to answer, whether you are a master glassmaker, a project manager but also mayor of a municipality. Every city in France has at least one church with stained glass windows.The public consultation launched by ECHA will end on Monday 2 May.

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