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Fears that world’s biggest arsenic mine is leaking into French countryside

French authorities said that 10 more children living near what used to be the world's biggest arsenic mine have tested above recommended levels for the toxic element, stoking parents' fears that waste from the site is leaking into soil and groundwater.

Fears that world's biggest arsenic mine is leaking into French countryside
The Salsigne mine in south west France. Photo: AFP

Officials now say that 46 of 143 children aged 11 or younger who were tested in the area have been found with 10 or more microgrammes of arsenic per gramme of creatine in urine samples.

Testing began this summer after residents became alarmed about contamination risks when the former Salsigne mine in southern France flooded during heavy rains last October.

The ARS health agency for the Occitanie region also said Wednesday that it had re-tested 11 children first tested in June.

Of the 11 children, one still had more than 10 microgrammes, “which can indicate long-term exposure,” Jean-Jacques Morfoisse, deputy director of the ARS Occitanie, told AFP.

Two others saw their test results rise above 10 microgrammes, Morfoisse said, while the arsenic readings fell to under the recommended level for the eight others.

The Salsigne mine in the Aude valley, near Carcassonne, was the world's biggest source of the element, as well as Europe's largest gold mine, before it was closed in 2004.

Millions of tons of toxic waste were then stocked at five sites nearby, and local associations say some have begun to leak.

Several parents called on local authorities to take urgent measures, and officials closed off access to some playgrounds and also began soil and atmospheric testing for arsenic.

Officials also prohibited swimming or fishing in the nearby Orbiel river and banned the eating of fruits and vegetables produced in 12 nearby communes for up to four months.

Acute exposure to arsenic can occur after eating certain foods, like shellfish or meat. The ARS acknowledges that “in the large majority of cases” high levels are the result of ingesting contaminated food or water.

Chronic arsenic poisoning can lead to discolouration and hardening of the skin, and eventually cause a variety of cancers.

President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged a “worrying” situation in a written response to two senators from the region seeking an inquiry, and assured that “everything will be done to protect residents”.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Snobs, beaches and drunks – 5 things this joke map teaches us about France

A popular joke 'map' of France has once again been widely shared on social media, sparking endless jokes at the expense of certain regions of France.

Snobs, beaches and drunks - 5 things this joke map teaches us about France
Image AFP/cartesfrance.fr
But while the map – created by cartesfrance.fr – is clearly intended to be comic, it teaches us some important points about France’s regional divides, local stereotypes and in-jokes.
 

 
 
 
Here are some of the key points.
 
1. Everyone hates Parisians
 
The map is purportedly France as seen through the eyes of Parisians, and contains a series of snobbish and rude generalisations about every part of France that is not maison (home) in the capital and its surroundings. The great majority of the country is labelled simply as paysans (peasants).
 
The general stereotype about Parisians is that they are snobs, rudely judging the rest of the country which they regard as backwards and full of ploucs (yokels) apart from small areas which make nice holiday destinations.
 
Like all sweeping generalisations, this is true of some people and very much not of others, but one of the few things that can unite people from all areas of France is how much they hate les parigots têtes de veaux (a colloquialism that very roughly translates as ‘asshole Parisians’)
 
 
2. Staycations rule
 
Even before Covid-related travel restrictions, holidaying within France was the norm for many French people.
 
As the map shows, Parisians regard the southern and western coastlines as simply plages (beaches) which they decamp to for at least a month in July or August. In the height of summer French cities tend to empty out (apart from tourists) as locals head to the seaside or the countryside.
 
 
In winter the Pyrenees and Alps are popular ski destinations.
 
3. Northerners like a drink
 
There is a very widespread stereotype, although not really backed up by evidence, that the people of Normandy, Brittany and the Nord area like a drink or two. Many suggest this is to cope with the weather, which does tend to be rainier than the rest of France (although has plenty of sunshine too).
 
 
Official health data doesn’t really back this up, as none of these areas show a significantly greater than average rate of daily drinkers, although Nord does hold the sad record for the highest rate of people dying from alcohol-related liver disease.
 
What’s certainly true is that Brittany and Normandy are cider country, with delicious locally-produced ciders on sale everywhere, well worth a try if you are visiting.
 
 
4. Poverty
 
The map labels the north eastern corner of France as simply pauvres – the poor.
 
The north east of the country was once France’s industrial and coal-mining heartland, and as traditional industries have declined there are indeed pockets of extreme poverty and high unemployment. The novel The End of Eddy, telling the story of novelist Edouard Louis’ childhood in a struggling small town near Amiens, lays out the social problems of such areas in stark detail.
 
However poverty is not just confined to one corner of France and the département that records the highest levels of deprivation is actually Seine-Saint-Denis in the Paris suburbs.
 
5. Southern prejudice
 
According to the map, those from the south are either branleurs (slackers) or menteurs (liars). 
 
This isn’t true, obviously, there are many lovely, hard-working and truthful people in southern France, but the persistent stereotype is that they are lazy – maybe because it’s too hot to do much work – and slightly shifty.
 
Even people who aren’t actually rude about southerners can be pretty patronising, as shown when south west native Jean Castex became the prime minister in summer 2020. 
 
Castex has a noticeable south west accent which sparked much comment from the Paris-based media and political classes, with comments ranging from the patronising – “I love his accent, I feel like I’m on holiday” – to the very patronising – “that accent is a bit rugby” (a reference to the fact that TV rugby commentators often come from France’s rugby heartlands in the south west).
 
 
In his first year as PM, Castex has undertaken a dizzying schedule of appointments around the four corners of France, so hopefully the lazy myth can now be put to bed.
 
And anyone tempted to take the piss out of his accent – glottophobie (accent prejudice) is now a crime in France.
 
For more maps that reflect France, head to cartesfrance.fr
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