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CRIME

French university boss charged over rotting corpses

The former president of a French university has been charged following shock revelations over the putrid conditions in which thousands of corpses donated to the faculty for research were kept, a source said on Monday.

French university boss charged over rotting corpses
Frederick Dardel, right, pictured in 2015 greeting then-president Francois Hollance, has been charged. Photo: Yoan Valet/AFP

Frederic Dardel has been charged with desecrating a corpse, a source close to the investigation told AFP, asking not to be named.

His lawyer confirmed he had been charged on Friday after being questioned over the scandal that forced the closure of the Centre for Body Donations at Paris-Descartes University.

In 2019, the government shut down the centre, heralded as a “temple of anatomy” for over half a century, after reports that bodies were left to rot, be gnawed by mice or even sold.

L’Express news magazine in November 2019 broke the story of what it described as a “mass grave in the heart of Paris.”

It said that photographs taken in the cold room of the Centre for Body Donations showed macabre scenes of bodies “naked, dismembered, eyes open, piled up on a gurney.

The report described “bodies by the dozen in an indescribable jumble. Here, a decomposing leg dangles. There, another damaged, blackened and riddled with holes after being nibbled by mice.”

Situated in Paris’s historic Latin Quarter, the Centre for Body Donations was founded in 1953 and received hundreds of bodies a year before it was closed.

Unnamed sources told L’Express that while bodies had been stocked on top of each other for “decades”, conditions had deteriorated sharply from 2013 on.

The magazine reported that one of the doors of the cold room was so rusty it no longer closed and that the air conditioning frequently broke down, forcing staff to incinerate some rotting bodies before they had been dissected.

It also revealed that bodies donated for teaching anatomy had been sold to private individuals or companies, with a limb going for up to €400 and a whole body for up to €900.

The report, which was based on photographs taken inside the centre in 2016, caused a scandal.

In June 2020, a report by a government agency in charge of inspecting education facilities concluded that there had been “serious ethical breaches” in the management of the Centre for Body Donations.

The report noted that various warnings had gone unheeded by management until 2018.

Two lab assistants have already been charged with desecrating a corpse, as has Paris University, a new entity created in 2020 from the merger of Paris-Descartes University and a sister faculty.

Dardel had escaped censure until now.

After the centre was closed he was made a special advisor in the cabinet of Minister for Research Frederique Vidal and later appointed director of a unit at the state research facility CNRS.

His lawyer Marie-Alix Canu-Bernard argued that he had tirelessly lobbied the government to fund renovations of the centre, but that his appeals had gone unheard.

Speaking to AFP, she argued that the state, not Dardel, was guilty of neglect.

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ENVIRONMENT

France to probe microplastic pellet pollution on Atlantic beaches

French prosecutors said on Friday they would investigate the appearance of vast quantities of tiny toxic plastic pellets along the Atlantic coast that endanger marine life and the human food chain.

France to probe microplastic pellet pollution on Atlantic beaches

The criminal probe will follow several legal complaints about the pellet invasion lodged by local authorities and the central government in Paris, Camille Miansoni, chief prosecutor in the western city of Brest, told AFP.

The microscopic pellets, called nurdles, are the building blocks for most of the world’s plastic production, from car bumpers to salad bowls.

They are usually packed in bags of 25 kilogrammes for transport, each containing around a million nurdles, which are sometimes called “Mermaids’ Tears”. 

But they can easily spill into the ocean when a cargo ship sinks or loses a container. Environmentalists also suspect that factories sometimes dump them into the sea.

Fish and birds often mistake them for food and, once ingested, the tiny granules can make their way into the diet of humans.

Experts told AFP the nurdles found along the coast of Brittany may have come from a plastic industry container that fell into the sea.

“We can’t rule out a single source for the industrial pellets,” said Nicolas Tamic at the CEDRE pollution research body in Brest.

On Tuesday, the French government filed a legal complaint against persons unknown and called for a international search for any containers that may have been lost at sea.

Local authorities have followed suit, and the environmental crime branch of the Brest prosecutor’s office will lead the investigation.

Last weekend, around 100 people took part in a clean-up campaign on a microplastic-infested beach in Pornic in Brittany to collect pellets and draw attention to the problem. 

“We think they’ve come from a container that may have been out there for a while and opened up because of recent storms,” said Lionel Cheylus, spokesman for the NGO Surfrider Foundation.

“Our action is symbolic. It’s not like we’re going to pick up an entire container load,” said Annick, a pensioner, as she filled her yoghurt pot with nurdles. 

French politicians have taken note. Joel Guerriau, a senator from the region, has called for a “clear international designation” of  the pellets as being harmful.

Ecological Transition Minister Christophe Bechu labelled the nurdles “an environmental nightmare”, telling AFP the government would support associations fighting pellet pollution.

Ingesting plastic is harmful for human health but nurdles, in addition, attract chemical contaminants found in the sea to their surface, making them even more toxic.

Measuring less than five millimetres in size, they are not always readily visible except when they wash up in unusually huge quantities, as has been the case since late November along the northwestern French coast.

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