Ever smelled a burning car?

July 28, 2009
Baghdad or Grenoble?

Baghdad or Grenoble?

Then there’s the popular passtime in France of burning cars. Was awoken at 4:30 am to the smell of heavy toxic fumes (windows open of course with this heat). Thought we were all goners, i.e. appartment building in flames, but luckily it turned out to be just a burning car, about a block down. Frequency of this kind of fun depends on the neighborhood; here they say it’s once a year or so. We’ll see. Anyway, it’s absolutely horrid and toxic, but not surprising given the proclivity to burning in this country by “respectable” people, along with their general lack of respect for rules and other people.

Balmy 20 degrees C at 3am

July 22, 2009

And a hint of smoke wafts in, distant garden waste burning at night. Not too offensive, but with this heat, you would really prefer to not have it, unless you’re a smoker, maybe. But I am in the heart of Grenoble, a major city of about 200 000? Why would anyone be allowed to burn in or near the city?

In a wheelchair? Forget France.

May 2, 2009

France is absolutely horrible for people in wheelchairs (I’m not one of them, fortunately), partly for structural reasons (old buildings, small sidewalks, etc.) but also, mainly, mentality-wise. People WILL park on sidewalks, for example, in complete violation of the law and yet with almost total impunity, unless there is a physical barrier to stop them. (Not to mention fire fighter access issues). You often see wheelchairs going down the street, in traffic, because of all the obstacles.  I once questioned a lady about parking a narrow sidewalk, blocking any possible wheelchair traffic. She replied “You’re absolutely right. I have a nephew in a wheelchair, so I’m very aware of the problem. Oh, but I’ll be no more than five minutes (in this store).” That to me kinda sums it all up.

The case below is a bit differerent as it involves handicap parking. This seems somewhat obeyed, due to high fines, but as you will see, some people seem to be above the law.

The below letter in French was sent to the Mayor of La Tronche, a town adjacent to Grenoble, explaining (with photo) that I saw a municipal employee in official vehicule parking in last of 4 handicap parking places in front of Grenoble prefecture (Employee not visibly handicapped).  Email sent in November 2008, no reply as of Summer 2009.

Le conducteur n'avait pas d'handicap visible Le conducteur n’avait pas d’handicap visible


Monsieur le Maire de La Tronche,

Je vous envois une photo prise il y a deux mois environs juste devant l’entrée de la préfecture à Grenoble. Il y a 4 place de parking pour handicapé à cet endroit, et votre employé, qui n’avait aucun signe d’handicap quand il a descendu de la voiture, a pris la dernière des 4 places, toutes les places non handicapé à proximité étant occupées.

Je suis sûr que l’employé en question dirait qu’il s’est arrêté seulement 1 minute ou 2 ; en réalité c’était plus près de 10 minutes. Mais pour moi que ce soit une minute ou 5 ou une demi-heure n’est pas la question. Il s’agit non seulement du non respect de la loi par un employé municipal, mais aussi d’un mépris pour les gens réellement handicapé, qui pourraient d’ailleurs se trouver aussi pressé que votre employé. Car si votre employé se moquait seulement de la loi, il se serait garé à côté des places handicapées, dans la zone de stationnement interdit.

Je ne crois pas que ceci est l’image de votre ville que vous désirez diffuser, et j’espère donc que vous rappellerez à vos équipes par communication officielle que le respect des places handicapées doit être observé à tout moment, ainsi que toute autre loi de la république !

Je vous prie d’agréer, Monsieur le Maire, l’assurance de ma considération distinguée.

For every season, a toxicity

March 4, 2009

The toxicity here has continued more less unabated since my Winter of Disbelief post. These people are amazing: My daughter’s room has been rendered unusable these past weeks due to an undescribable sweet solvent/heavy fuel type smell from the neighbors below that doesn’t completely disappear even with the window wide open. In another unusable room as well as the living room, transient blasts of solvent or paint smell appear mysteriously and then disappear, usually rather quickly, thankfully. And in my toddler son’s room, we’ve gotten used to almost daily smokey/perfumey smells rising from below, invariably just after we here someone arriving home in the late afternoon. The mother insists that they use no aromatizers or incense, so we’ve come to believe that it’s her teenage daughters that are using either papier d’arménie or a “Lampe Berger” to cover up cigarette and/or hasish odors that we sometimes smell, just prior to the smokey scent smell (pour couvrir la fumée de cigarette et/ou de shit qu’on croit sentir aussi de temps en temps). I wonder also if the ocassional solvent smell is also a means of odor elimination employed by these young ladies. (Je me demande aussi si les solvent sont aussi parfois un moyen d’éliminer ou de “neutraliser” la fumée de tabac et de shit.)

And it gets better. Last week there were several days of spring-like weather, and I noticed that some bugs were starting to come out (spiders, bees, small flies). Well, it wasn’t long before I was gassed out in the stairwell by Raid, and then also noticed the beloved insecticide rising into my son’s bedroom. At times, we’ve been sleeping all four of us in the living room. There really should be a Toxics Anonymous for people like this.

Luckily for us we will be out of here at the end of the month. Yes, we’re moving to try to save our lives, and crossing our fingers and toes that the new place will be better built (more vapor-proof) and have less toxic neighbors. A BIG ASK, I know. As for the toxic family below, I plan to provide them with documentation on the risks they’re taking, but I don’t think it will do a damn bit of good. If three rare cancers all within 20 or so feet of them doesn’t make them stop and wonder, what will? Poor things. More details on this horrid architecture and my hypotheses on these cancers at some later date.

Burning for all ocassions

February 28, 2009

Here’s a toxic industrial action seen for miles around in the skies of Grenoble this week. This is a standard union trick employed at just about any protest against layoffs in France. I’m sorry about the lost jobs at Caterpillar, but do toxic releases help anybody? Note that there is housing just tens of meters from the burning.

Also, I just learned this week that kids are taught the joys of burning as part of the carnaval celebration. Wow, this burning mentality goes much deeper than I realized.

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Winter of My Disbelief

January 28, 2009

It’s mid-winter. Temperatures in Grenoble have varied between -5 and +5 over the last 2 weeks. The only problem is that my downstairs neighbors decided to start redoing their bathroom 2 weeks ago, including paint and wood varnish, and of course tons of vapors are rising through the floors to give me headaches and other symptoms (prior to moving here, I have no recollection of ever suffering from severe migraine type headaches; the only time I remember headaches like this is when I had a bad sinus infection). The vapor situation is surely aggravated by the fact that my neighbors refuse to air out their own appartment because… guess what? It’s too cold outside. Who knew? Haven’t they ever heard about toxic indoor air prior to my mentionning it? And instead of thinking, hey maybe this guy is some sort of canary and could help save us from some terrible disease, they seem to think I just want to prevent them from having a beautiful appartment. The cherry on the cake was the comment that they’ve lived here for 14 years and no one has ever had a problem with odors from their DIY work, including the original owner who was sick with cancer (and subsequently died from it). These are the same people who break out the Raid at the sight of an itsy bitsy spider or a couple of ants. And who of course are eating more and more organic foods, because well, all those pesticides you know! We are of course actively looking for another appartment before we become the next cancer statistics here. In addition to the original owner of this appartment, 2 other relatively young persons (40s and 50s) have died within meters of here, from rare cancers (pancreatic, stomach and liver). With toxic neighbors and pathetic construction like this, I’m not at all suprised.

What get’s me is that if the odors are even perceptible in my appartment, they have to be absolutely outrageous in theirs, and they don’t seem to mind, although they apparently abhor the smell of cigarettes. Go figure.

Such people are surely not rare in France; my stepfather is one of them. His basement garage is an abominal pit of toxicity (see photos), yet he eats mainly organic foods now (the organic potatoes stored in the garage smell of gasoline and myriad VOCs), and dreams of building an eco-friendly home. When I pointed out that all the organic stuff was pointless if he breathed his garage air 10 minutes a day or more, I got an angry reply to the effect that he makes an absolute distinction between what he breathes and what he ingests. Interesting philosophy.

One of these days I post some stats on French cancer statistics. My hunch is that they are rising faster than most other places.

There’s a consumer magazine in France called “Que choisir” that regularly warns people about indoor-air toxicitiy, but apparently people are more interest in plasma TVs and washing machines. Too bad.

Cave à Vin, ou stockage de déchets dangereux?

Every true Frenchman has a wine cellar...

Breath this!

and an arsenal of hazardous materials

Burn baby burn

November 27, 2008

So there I was, meeting with neighborhood parents and a child development specialist on the topic “Etre parent aujourd’hui”. We were meeting in a room in the basement of the “Centre Social Arlequin” (in Grenoble’s Villeneuve area), just a few steps away from the public-funded Ludothèque, a great place where small kids come to play, accompanied by their parents. After about an hour of discussion, I smelled paper burning, with a perfumy edge to it. I asked the Center’s director (seated next to me) if she smelled something burning. Somebody burning incense, she said, as if that wasn’t a particularly odd thing in a public building. I went to investigate, as this is a neighborhood where kids set trash containers on fire for fun (not to mention cars). My first thoughts were with the children in the Ludothèque, but at the same time, I was having a bit of an asthmatic reaction to this peculiar combination of smells, so I decided to investigate. I tracked the smell through the corridors and up the stairs to a corner with some offices, one of whose door was closed. After asking questions of one employee, the closed door woman opened and asked if there was a problem. I replied that yes there was indeed, that her burning incense was giving me an asthma attack, one floor below. She said she’s put out her “Papiers d’Arménie” incense (paper imbibed with a hideous synthetic scent and meant to be burned), and that she’d been the victim herself of certain “unpleasant” odors (human one’s I guessed). Well, I told her that I was very, very bothered her incense. That was that, but I did tell the Director that I thought it was inappropriate first of all to be burning things in a public building, and that the woman’s burning incense bothered me much more than had she been smoking a cigarette, and secondly in a public service such as hers where children and perhaps other sensitive populations are likely to visit, such heavily perfumed odorizers should be avoided. She kindly said she would speak to the woman in question. I later felt vindicated to find that Que Choisir Magazine, in an article on the ill-effects of room “fresheners” and incenses, scored Papiers d’Arménie very poorly in terms of toxicity (Que Choisir, No. 421, December 2004); I gave the Director a copy of the article.

Not more than a week later, I took my kids to a Story Telling event organized by the neighborhood library, on the upper floor of the same building (“Le Patio”) housing the Centre Social. The story telling was great. Bravo to the Library staff and the “Mamas Conteuses”. At one point my toddler got fussy and I took him out of the room where the stories were being told. A few paces down the corridor there was a man stickiing his head out a window, smoking and reading an article. Of course, the smoke was blowing back into the corridor, and I was quite uncomfortable having my son breath that smoke. After a bit of uncertainty I said to the man, who likely worked in the offices there, you probably think you’re smoking outside, but the smoke is blowing back in, and there are children here (as if that matters). He replied “C’est bon” and put out his cigarette. I was so annoyed though that I couldn’t just let it be. You know, I said, smoking is strictly forbidden inside the building. Oh, but I wasn’t smoking inside, I was smoking out the window. Really, I said, your feet are inside, so it would seem to me you’re smoking inside. Blah, blah, blah. Pointless to bitch to him or this blog about it. The only thing to do is to complain to the Patio management. Once again, rules are more suggestions for good conduct than anything else.

Let me get this rant point out now, and it will be recurrent if I maintain this blog: If you are asthmatic and even more so chemically sensitive, do not come to France with the intention of staying for an extended period of time. While the French are smoking less and less and all public places are now (theoretically) smoke-free, at the same time they are wearing more and more hideous synthetic perfumes, even very young kids (the French asthma rate will certainly explode in coming years). Not to mention the absolutely overpowering perfumes found in the laundry detergents that people use here.  And then the constant burning: yard waste burning in spring, summer and fall, and moist wood burning in winter (often with chemical starters), and not just in the country but in big cities like Grenoble (apparently Paris is about the only place where burning is not allowed). While one shouldn’t generalize, my experience over 10 years is that the French love chemicals and will invariably choose a more toxic solution over a less toxic one. One very telling example:  If you’ve been to France you’ve probably found it quaint that the French homes and other buildings don’t have window screens. In fact it’s not quaint at all; they don’t have screens because the people are quite happy to spray their homes daily with Raid. And of course, there’s always an aesthetic argument for the toxic solution: Oh, window screens do spoil the view so very much.

Chemical starter -- Shut your windows fast

Chemical starter -- Shut your windows fast

CHU de Grenoble, Grenoble Hospital

November 8, 2008

I’ve been thinking for some time of starting this blog, but it took my experience yesterday at Grenoble’s Hopital Nord to get me really motivated. France is not a bad place, nor is the CHU Hospital. The pediatric surgery team was great, son’s surgery and recovery went very well. All in all a good experience. BUT, there were those few annoying and/or frightening details that seem to pop up on an almost daily basis. The first: When the (male) anesthiologist came to carry away our son, in his arms, to the operating block, I catch a whiff of musky perfume, the kind that gives me instant mild asthma and sometimes headaches. Now, it wasn’t horribly strong, just enough to make me uncomfortable in my breathing. But of course my thougts were with my son, who has “infantile asthma”, as we had declared to another anesthesiologist upon consultation prior to admission. Now, doctors should know that perfumes and asthma do not mix, so why in the hell would ANY doctor, let alone an anesthesiologist, wear perfume or cologne at the hosptial? Everything went OK for us, luckily, but suppose someone more sensitive than myself finds himself having an asthma attack moments before undergoing anesthesia, thanks to perfumed doctors? I haven’t complained to the hospital administration yet, but I plan to. (More to come on the problem of ubiquitous perfumes in France).

The second and more outrageous fact was the discovery of dozens of cigarettes butts (and smell of stale cigarette smoke) in one of the hospital stairwells that serve as emergency exits.  Having “time to kill” while my son was undergoing surgery, my wife and I decided to take the stairs down to the lobby (mind you, the hospital is 14 stories high, and with my wife and son spending 2 nights in the pedriatric ward on the 9th, we thought it might in fact be a good idea to see where the emergency stair exits were).  At each level as we descended we saw cigarette butts stamped out on the stairs or dunked in half-filled plastic cups of coffee or water bottles, and even tossed into black plastic trash bags with papers and and other trash (the bags apparently placed there by cleaning staff to try to contain the mess). On one level there was even an apparent “smoker’s seat”, a ratty old fabric seated chair, the back cushion of which appeared to have been burned or smoke damaged. Smoking is of course strictly forbidden in the hospital, and certainly none the less so in the emergency exit stairwell; and yet I sensed these were not patients or visitors that were sneaking smokes here. This hunch was confirmed when I saw the latex glove amidst the butts on one level, and the hospital mask amidst those on another. Here are a couple of photos:

Hospital emergency stairwell

Emergency stairwell

Smokering chair in Emergency Stairwell

Smoking chair in Emergency Stairwell

So what can I say? I’m not a fire expert and I don’t really know what would happen if a bag of trash or a lone upholstered chair happened to be ablaze when an emergency required a general evacuation via the stairs. But that’s just the point, we anglos tend to think safety first, better safe than sorry, rules are rules, etc. France is different though:  Safety is for others and generally speaking rules are seen more as “good practices” than mandatory, because there are rarely consequences for breaking them.