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At the foot of Mont Blanc, the inhabitants of the Arve Valley are struggling with persistent pollution

A study was carried out on 76 children and 6 adults at the initiative of the Coll'Air Pur collective and revealed the presence of heavy metals in their hair.
60% of them had dermatological consequences and a third had sleep disorders.

Of the 76 children and 6 adults tested, 60% showed dermatological consequences, one third showed sleep disorders.
Of the 76 children and 6 adults tested, 60% showed dermatological consequences, a third sleep disorders. DENIS CHARLET/AFP

High snow-covered peaks, pine trees, fresh water lakes with turquoise reflections... A paradisiacal place that is nevertheless one of the most polluted places in France. The 155,000 inhabitants of the Arve Valley breathe in high levels of nitrogen dioxide, fine particles and heavy metals produced in particular by wood heating, factories and heavy road traffic. For the past ten years, this valley in Haute-Savoie has been under close surveillance. At the beginning of 2017, residents of the towns of Sallanches, Chamonix, Passy and Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, suffocated for 35 consecutive days with pollution above the European limit values. An ordinary episode for these Savoyards who are out of breath and fear a multiplication of serious illnesses, cancers and heart problems.
In ten years, nearly 600 families have filed a complaint against X for "endangering the lives of others" and "not assisting people in danger".

On November 10, the responsibility of the State was recognized before the court of Grenoble without compensating the victims. It is in this context that the Coll-Air Pur collective, which brings together about a hundred people, is multiplying studies to scientifically prove the repercussions of this air pollution. The latest, published on 13 January, points the finger at the presence of heavy metals in children's hair. In their line of fire, several sources of pollution. The first being wood heating, which accounts for 80% of the valley's polluting emissions. Next comes the SGL Carbon factory, located in Passy and producing graphite, which is responsible for 11% of air pollution, even though it denies emitting heavy metals and dioxins. Finally, the incinerator, the main means of waste management in the valley, and the 30,718 daily passengers on the A40, of which more than 5,000 only for the Mont Blanc tunnel, follow.

Coughing, sleep disorders and dermatological symptoms

<bbb>Mercury, radium, lead, tin: the finding is indisputable. Conducted on 76 children and 6 adults, the study reveals the presence of several heavy metals in the three millimetres of scalp sampled. Chemical components singled out by the WHO as "major risk to public health". After measuring the level of heavy metals in soil, eggs and mushrooms in the region, the collective became interested in hair to "show the direct consequences on human health," Murielle Auprince, their spokesperson, tells Le Figaro. "And it is worrying," she argues, pointing to the results of the study, conducted from 16 September to 17 October with the laboratory toxSeek. Nine of the profiles tested are considered "at risk" because their heavy metal levels are "two to three times higher than a control population".</bbb>

<bbb>Cindy is among the children whose hair was taken.
Oministering results that echo a succession of symptoms the teenager has suffered since she was a child. "She often has problems with breathing", "itchy eyes or "itchy throat", reports her mother, who lives in Passy in the Cheddes district "between two factories". She and her husband are concerned about the high number of cancers in their neighbourhood. There are two breast cancers and one lung cancer," she adds, concerned. It's terrible to come to this, to live in such a beautiful landscape without breathing the pure mountain air.</bbb>

Cindy's case is not isolated. <bbb>According to the collective's survey, 62% of people "with light or heavy rare earth contamination" have developed dermatological symptoms, and 37% of this same population has sleep disorders, concentration problems or severe fatigue.</bb> Pathologies observed by Dr Mallory Guyon, a member of the collective and a general practitioner in Les Houches. Eczema, redness, itching in the eyes, many inhabitants suffer from it. But that's not all. "I see more respiratory illnesses, asthmatic symptoms, ear infections, laryngitis, bronchiolitis for babies," she reveals. For the general practitioner, it is obvious that pollution is deteriorating the health of the inhabitants, especially since the death of Emilie Spreafico from several brain cancers.

From the valley of death to the model city

Last June, the little blonde girl with curly hair died at the age of twelve. Seven years earlier, in March 2013, doctors diagnosed her with a first tumour. From operation to operation, from treatment to treatment, hospitalized in emergency in Lyon, nothing helped. For her father Daniel, pollution is responsible for his daughter's death. Angry, he remembers the nickname given to the valley by Lyon's oncologists: "the valley of death". These words echo the pain of the father of a family who cannot get over the death of his daughter. He "blames the state for doing nothing" to prevent the inhabitants from breathing "deadly" air. A dangerousness on which Professor Frédérique Champly, head of the emergency department in Sallanches, had already alerted in 2017. That same year, Santé publique France had shown that 85 people died every year in the valley due to pollution compared to 48,000 on the national territory.

These figures had angered hundreds of local residents who went out to demonstrate in spring 2017 to ask the government for more resources. Since then, money has been given to companies to reduce their fine particle emissions and the plan for the protection of the atmosphere (PPA) has been reinforced. But these measures remain insufficient for the associations.

"Our valley is a bad place to live," laments Professor Frédérique Champly.

In a video published on social networks, he asks to "fight against excessive transport", by reinforcing rail traffic, to "close highly polluting industries such as the incinerator" or even "the plant that manufactures graphite for nuclear plants". An accusation that the SGL Carbon plant refutes, objecting to its "excellent results for the year 2019". The installation of new flue gas treatment systems has reduced "dust emissions by 80% between 2017 and 2019, from 6.9 to 1.38 tonne" as well as "nitrogen dioxide molecules by 17%".

PM10 levels in the Arve Valley in 2019
PM10: Average over the last 12 months
The PM10 rate recorded in 2019 in the Arve Valley. ATMO Mont-Blanc report - December 2020
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels in the Arve Valley in 2019
NO2: Annual average over the last 12 months
The nitrogen dioxide (NO2) level recorded in 2019 in the Arve Valley. ATMO Mont-Blanc report - December 2020

Good results also highlighted by Eric Fournier, mayor of Chamonix and vice-president of ATMO Mont-Blanc, in charge of monitoring air quality for the region. A pollution "taken in hand", which has "considerably decreased in twenty years" with "a 50% reduction in the Chamonix valley of the two main pollutants that are nitrogen dioxide and PM10".

However, the results are less convincing for PM2.5, the smallest fine particles that slip more discreetly into the human body. Their presence is "even more problematic" for Dr Mallory Guyon, who warns of their "greater danger", particularly in terms of cancers and strokes.

The level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) recorded in 2019 in the Arve Valley.
<bbb>PM2.5: Annual average over the last 12 months</bb>
The nitrogen dioxide (NO2) level recorded in 2019 in the Arve Valley. ATMO Mont-Blanc report - December 2020

"In 2020, the threshold was exceeded for 10 days in the Arve Valley", acknowledges the mayor of Chamonix, but some towns such as Passy "start from further away", he moderates with Le Figaro. The local elected official now wants to look to the future and make his valley "a model valley". He is therefore committed to helping households to abandon wood heating for gas, and to closing one or more incinerators in the coming years. These initiatives are accompanied by further research into the role played by trucks, individual heating and industry. For Éric Fournier, it is not easy to shape a region that has lived like this for more than a hundred years, resulting in historical soil pollution and an economic balance. Proposals that do not entirely satisfy the collective, which calls for more important measures to be taken to make the Arve Valley, "a model" for other regions in France and in the world, a territory not "synonymous with death but with life".