Marie Curie’s laboratory in Paris suburb … Is it a Chernobyl …?

Since the 1980s there has been concern over the radioactivity of a certain building just south of Paris. In the first years of the 1930s the building was the laboratory of Marie Curie, physicist and chemist, and discoverer of radium. The building is in the commune (suburb) of Arcueil, 5.3 kilometers (3.3 miles) from Paris. […]

Marie Curie

Since the 1980s there has been concern over the radioactivity of a certain building just south of Paris.

In the first years of the 1930s the building was the laboratory of Marie Curie, physicist and chemist, and discoverer of radium.

The building

The building is in the commune (suburb) of Arcueil, 5.3 kilometers (3.3 miles) from Paris. It is in the center of the commune, close to the station of the RER Metro line B, and on a street named De la Convention.

Madame Curie carried out experiments in the 3-story building until her death in 1934. While she was there trucks came regularly to deliver iron ore from which she was to extract radio-elements for her radioactive experiments. And then to cart the waste away afterwards.

After her death, the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Paris Faculty of Science and the Curie Foundation continued to use the building, mainly for research on natural and artificial radio-elements, and on methods of extracting the natural isotope, Protactinium-231, but in 1978, the building was abandoned. It was kept under surveillance with warnings of danger outside.

In the 1980s, people who lived around the building began to become aware of a high cancer rate amongst them, and the Paris-based daily Le Parisien began to report the stories of some of the cancer sufferers. The sufferers blamed Madame Curie’s laboratory.

Accordingly, in 1991, the building was decontaminated and some items among its contents were removed. Yet, it is believed that a good 10% of the contents – furniture, paper, instruments – had remained behind.

From the period 1999 to 2002 regular tests for radioactivity were carried out. They showed that there was no radioactivity in the building or on Rue de la Convention and the neighboring Rue Clément Ader.

Yet, a 1997 evaluation to determine the volume of radioactivity a human being would receive who walks past the building once a day, and someone who lives within 20 meters (22 yards) of it, showed that there was a degree of contamination. Someone passing by daily would receive a 0.02 millisievert dose of radioactivity over a year, and living in the neighborhood would give a dose of radioactivity of  0.9 millisieverts. (The millisievert dose from a chess x-ray is 0.02, and we all pick up 1 millisievert of radioactivity annually just going about our daily life.)

A warning not to enter

Such a low level of contamination was not a major story and the French media lost interest in Madame Curie’s laboratory.

In June last year (2010) the building was catapulted back into the news.

On Monday June 7, builders working on the premises noticed that a door had been forced and that there was some disarray inside the building which signaled a burglary. They summoned the police who on hearing which building was involved reported the break-in to Paris’ police headquarters which sent their special ‘nuclear’ unit – NRBC (Nucléaire, Radioactif, Biologique, Chimique) – to the building. That afternoon, dressed in protective clothing and wearing gas masks, the unit entered the building. Establishing that the robbers had left with some instruments, the anti-terrorism unit was alerted. The instruments, should they be radioactive, could be put to use to disastrous effect by people with bad intentions.

I understand that the thieves have not been apprehended, and until this week, the media had yet again regarded the building as a non-story.

But thanks to Le Parisien of this past Monday, January 17, we know that the building is still very much on the minds of the people of Arcueil, as well as on those of the two adjoining communes of Cachan and l’Haý-les-Roses.

The mayors of the three with the support of the Prefect (chief of police and the fire brigade) of the region have formed a supervisory commission to ensure that the building does not fall into oblivion again. This is unlikely to happen because what is supposed to be the final decontamination of the 1,500 sq meter (16,200 sq ft) building and its 5,400 sq meter (59,000 sq ft) grounds is currently under way. The process will take until 2015 when the building, which is now the property of the Arcueil rectorate, will be demolished.

Until 2015 however the building, which many believe is a danger to the health of those who live around it or pass by it,  will remain radioactive.

Madame Curie, honored with two Nobel prizes – physics and chemistry – was born Marie Sklodowska in Poland in 1867. She died on July 4 1934 from aplastic anemia which was probably caused from exposure to radiation.  Because the fatal consequences of radiation were not known those years she had carried out her experiments without the protection our scientists enjoy today. She used to walk around with test tubes in her pockets. Some of the test cubes she kept on her desk because she liked the blue-green light they gave off in the dark.

What I would like to know is whether Madame Curie had become radioactive herself? I would also like to know how long radioactivity lasts.  She was first buried in the cemetery of Sceaux, near Paris. She was buried in the family tomb with her husband Pierre Curie who had died tragically when run over by a horse-drawn carriage near Notre Dame Cathedral. The two now lie buried in Paris’s Panthéon.

Maybe the following is an answer to my two questions. Madame Curie’s papers, even a notebook she kept on meals she cooked, are considered so highly radioactive that they are kept in lead-lined boxes. Those who wish to consult them have to wear protective clothing.

From my crime research I also know that soil in and around the grave of a victim of arsenic poisoning becomes contaminated.

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

17 Responses to “Marie Curie’s laboratory in Paris suburb … Is it a Chernobyl …?”

Pages: [2] 1 » Show All

  1. 17
    10 Bizarrely Radioactive Stories – ENJOY BUZZ Says:

    […] carrying away the waste. Even today, with 90 percent of the building’s contents removed, there continues to be a mini-Chernobyl where her abandoned laboratory […]

  2. 16
    Carrie Says:

    Yes, her body is radioactive, and to my knowledge she was interred in a lead lined coffin when she was moved to the Pantheon.

  3. 15
    10 Bizarrely Radioactive Stories - Bee Trends Says:

    […] carrying away the waste. Even today, with 90 percent of the building’s contents removed, there continues to be a mini-Chernobyl where her abandoned laboratory […]

  4. 14
    Marilyn Z. Tomlins Says:

    Hi, I did not know this. I often go to Paris’s Pantheon where both her body and that of Pierre lie. Then it must be radioactive around it too.

  5. 13
    Marie Curie: A Math Tutor Discovers Radioactivity - MathWise Says:

    […] marble that separates you from her mortal remains: years of exposure are believed to have left her body in a Chernobyl-like state of long-term radioactivity. It will be approximately 1500 years before […]

  6. 12
    10 Bizarrely Radioactive Stories – Says:

    […] carrying away the waste. Even today, with 90 percent of the building’s contents removed, there continues to be a mini-Chernobyl where her abandoned laboratory […]

  7. 11
    10 Bizarrely Radioactive Stories - BuzzVinyl Says:

    […] carrying away the waste. Even today, with 90 percent of the building’s contents removed, there continues to be a mini-Chernobyl where her abandoned laboratory […]

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