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

15 Responses

1-19-2011 at 17:44:33

Your Comments

I read this article with great interest as I always admired the Curies for the work they did.

However, I visit Paris on a regular basis and would from now on be terrified to walk past that house. Or for that matter walk around in the vicinity of the area mentioned. Good to have this information.

1-19-2011 at 20:14:37

Moral of that, don’t go near her home or her grave!!! I am surprised things were left which could be used by people of ill intent. Very remiss of the authorities.

3-14-2011 at 19:51:42

It is true that Marie Curie contaminated a lot of things she touched after working with her new found element Radium.
In our cancer institute we have a framed letter, a kind of declaration which was given when Radium was send to hospitals working with Radium against cancer, and also this letter was found contaminated with traces of Radium. (after making a radioautograph).
Since Radium has a halflife of nearly 1600 years, it wil be traceable for a long time. I find it hard to believe that outside the building mentioned in the article, radioactivity is measured. Was the building made of granite? you always wil find traces of radioactive elements in certain granites!
You need a great stack of radioactive material to measure it outside a brick building. I won’t be afraid of walking round the building.
Of more concern to the French people living for example in the Auvergne is the piles of radioactive waste from the old Uranium mines (St.Priest la Prugne, la Bois Noir). see also: http://www.wise-uranium.org/udfr.html#PRIEST

3-15-2011 at 00:40:57

Thank you Leon Hesselmann for your very interesting comment.

4-3-2014 at 21:42:15

If anyone is interested in radioactive experiments, check You Tube. Type in Bionerd23. She travels to the most radioactive places in the world and takes samples of the materials available for testing. She has traveled to Chernobyl multiple times and has even found nuclear fuel fragments. Madame Curie would be proud!

4-4-2014 at 09:01:27

Mike Scimeca, Thank you for the info. I am sure those who read this piece will be interested too in this information.

[…] the Paris Faculty of Science and the Curie Foundation. After that it was kept under surveillance, authorities finally aware of the dangers inside. When many people in the neighborhood noticed high cancer rates among them, as reported in Le […]

[…] the Paris Faculty of Science and the Curie Foundation. After that it was kept under surveillance, authorities finally aware of the dangers inside. When many people in the neighborhood noticed high cancer rates among them, as reported in Le […]

7-11-2015 at 04:24:44

Indeed, Mrs. Curie’s body is certainly in a highly radioactive condition, and WILL be for hundreds of years, much like the gentlemen who caused the explosions at the infamous Chernobyl Reactor Number 4 in April of 1986. Their exposure was such that they had to be buried in solid zinc caskets so that their remains did not irradiate the ground — and even the ground water — beneath Mitino Cemetery, located just outside of Moscow.

After a lifetime of exposure during the course of her work, Madame Curie would present even more radiation than the Chernobyl fatalities. The good news is that the Pantheon is a huge vault of heavy stone, which would lessen the threat somewhat. The bad news is that whomever it was who moved her got a pretty hefty dose of radionuclides.

7-12-2015 at 20:57:22

Hi,

Having great respect for Madame Curie and her husband, I often go to visit her tomb in the Pantheon.

[…] 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 […]

6-28-2016 at 21:42:35

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.

2-28-2017 at 19:46:43

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

2-28-2018 at 14:42:19

Just curious, is it known what instruments were stolen! And that is sad not to find them

3-1-2018 at 09:31:39

I do not have such information. Sorry.

If you wish not to miss one of my blogs, do subscribe.

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

HOW TO CONTACT ME

Should you wish to contact me you can do so by email: marilyn@marilynztomlins.com