Kosovo's Displaced People Treated for Lead Poisoning

NEW YORK, New York, September 1, 2006 – The senior United Nations envoy in Kosovo has welcomed the start of medical treatment to help internally displaced persons (IDPs) suffering from lead poisoning as a result of living in contaminated camps in the northern part of the disputed province.

Kosovo, a land-locked province of Serbia, still bears the scars of the civil war between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians six years ago.

In his first day on the job, Joachim Rucker, the UN secretary-general's new special representative in Kosovo and head of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, said today that the World Health Organization has been able to begin medical treatment now that internally displaced persons have transferred to a safer camp run by the United Nations.

Almost 600 internally displaced persons from the Roma or Gypsy, Ashkali and Egyptian communities have moved since the start of the year to Camp Osterode from the camps contaminated with lead in Cesmin Lug/Llugė, Žitkovac/Zitkovc, and Kablare/Kablar. The latter two camps have now been closed. Some 148 people still remain in Cesmin Lug/Llugė.

Rucker

Dr. Joachim Rucker, a German economist and politician, today assumed the post of head of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo. (Photo courtesy Lifeonline)
Rucker congratulated those internally displaced persons who agreed to relocate to Osterode for the sake of their children while permanent homes in the Roma Mahala in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovicė/a are under construction.

"This has been a painful chapter in the lives of the IDPs concerned, whom circumstances connived to keep in extremely unhygienic and adverse living conditions in the camps," he said, urging those people remaining in Cesmin Lug/Llugė to move to Osterode as soon as possible.

UNMIK arranged the move in cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Children's Fund, WHO and several nongovernmental organizations.

Health experts say children are particularly vulnerable to lead pollution. Soon after the Roma moved in, the UN realized that they were living on contaminated land. Reports by the UN mission and the WHO dating to 2000 recommended their immediate removal.

Before it was opened this year, Osterode was cleaned and refurbished by UNMIK and tested by environmental engineers for lead contamination. Residents have been provided with household items to replace tainted goods from the previous camps, and some job opportunities have been created.

Most of the IDPs have been displaced from the Roma Mahala that was destroyed during the conflict in 1999, when NATO forces drove out Yugoslav troops amid human rights abuses in fighting between Serbs, Albanians and other ethnic communities. UNMIK was then created by the UN Security Council to administer the province.

Although Kosovo is technically a part of Serbia, only five percent of its population is Serbian, while 90 percent is Albanian. Protected by UNMIK, Serbs now live mainly in enclaves surrounded by Albanians.

The major source of lead pollution in Mitrovicė/a is the Trepca Mine, built in 1927. The smelter close to Zvecan opened in 1939. Because of the smelter and three huge tailing dams at the facility, environmental pollution in Mitrovicė/a increased.

smelter

The Trepca lead smelter near Zvecan (Photo courtesy EAR)
In 2000 the smelter was closed to reduce health risks caused by the lead pollution. But lead does not decompose over time, it remains in the soil, water, dust and food. The tailing dams constantly supply fresh dust and soil contaminated with lead, which is carried by the wind to Mitrovicė/a, Zvecan and the surrounding areas.

UN volunteers Hana Klimesova, a psychologist, and Health Risk Assessment Coordinator Elizabeth Morfaw, have been working with the World Health Organization on a survey of the impact of lead exposure on children's health.

"We focus on children between 24 and 36 months old because they were born after the closing down of Trepca smelter, the major source of lead pollution in Mitrovica. If the danger is over, as people like to think, these kids would not show any significant blood lead levels," the volunteers explain.

The human body absorbs lead through mouth, nose and skin. Mothers who are exposed to lead can contaminate their unborn child through the placenta or their born child through breastfeeding.

"Ninety-nine percent of the lead absorbed by an adult will leave the body through urine and feces, but only 32 percent of the lead a child absorbs can be excreted," explains Klimesova.

woman

This woman is an Albanian speaking Roma, known as Ashkali. She is married, has two small children and is pregnant. Her four year old son, shown here, has be diagnosed with lead poisoning. (Photo courtesy Refugees International)
"Furthermore they often put their hands in their mouths and playing on the ground, being in much closer contact with contaminated soil and dust," says Morfaw.

The results of lead poisoning can be serious health problems - brain or nerve damage, impaired speech, hearing problems, decreased mental ability, decreased learning abilities, reduced growth, high blood pressure, hyperactivity, antisocial behavior and more.

The nongovernmental organization Refugees International charges that UNMIK has dragged its feet for over a year before moving the IDPs away from the contaminated camps. The group says the move only took place after its members had educated U.S. legislators and sent letters urging U.S. diplomats to take action to protect the displaced people from lead.

"Environmental standards for the mining industry must be set and strictly enforced by UNMIK and the future government," says Refugees International.

In August 2005, the Independent Commission for Mines and Minerals issued permits for the reopening of 18 mines, including five of the Trepca lead mines, which are suspected of polluting the camp sites. The re-opening of these mines brings significant promises of economic development to a population suffering from 70 percent unemployment. In the 1980s, the mines employed 20,000 workers and represented 70 percent of all Yugoslavia’s mineral wealth.

Refugees Internation is calling for the World Bank and/or the European Agency for Reconstruction to commit to a comprehensive environmental clean up of the North Mitrovica lead sites as recommended in a UNMIK report from November 2000.