Unhealthy surroundings for the Roma refugees, who have been contaminated by lead

In February 2006, the move began of the Roma and Ashkali from the lead-contaminated refugee camps Žitkovac/Zhitkoc and Kablare/Kablar in North-Mitrovica/North-Mitrovice into the former French military base “Osterode”, which is only 50 metres from the lead works of the “Trepca Mines Company”, which is contaminated by heavy metal.

Since 1999, the “inmates” of the above mentioned refugee camps and of the Cesmin Lug/Cesminluke refugee camp, 560 members of the Roma and Ashkali, have had to vegetate after being driven out of their houses in the south of Mitrovica/ Mitrovice by extremist Albanians in the same year during the Kosovo war. Around the camps there is an extremely high concentration of lead and other heavy metals in the ground and in the air, so that the residents of the camps have been exposed for years to
a very heavy contamination and suffer from lead poisoning.

In spite of the express demands of the GfbV that the residents of the camps should be moved to an uncontaminated area and that medical treatment should be commenced promptly, by the beginning of September 457 persons, among them 183 children under the age of 15 have been moved to this former military camp of the French KFOR soldiers. The temporary administration of the United Nations in Kosovo (UNMIK), which is responsible for the refugee camps, justified this measure, which is contested from a medical point of view, by stating that by removing the top level of soil and by covering the lower levels with concrete and by better conditions like improved medical treatment, regular provision of food and adequate sanitary facilities the danger to health of the refugees in the Osterode refugee camp would be reduced. So the continuing contamination of the air through heavy metals in camp “Osterode” and the resulting consequences for the health of the contaminated persons
are being accepted.

The refugees in “Osterode” have been served since February 2006 by a doctor, a nurse and a small “clinic”. The head of the UNMIK, Joachim Rücker, stated that the medical treatment of the lead poisoning began on 2nd September 2006. For this reason the medical team was increased in size, by a further American doctor, two local paediatricians and an assistant doctor, five nurses and five Roma helpers. It is the children and the pregnant women to whom the doctors devote the most attention.

The Society for Threatened Peoples sent one of the leading European specialists for heavy metal poisoning, the environmental doctor, Klaus-Dieter Runow, on a fact finding mission to Kosovo. Dr Runow took blood samples and 66 hair samples. The lead values of the refugees exceeded the reference value by at least 20, in the case of several children the values were 1,200 times the permissible level. Many tests displayed also very high cadmium and arsenic values.

“Therapy and detoxification are not possible on the spot. The refugees can only be helped when the exposure has come to an end. Of course the living conditions are better on the former military base, but what use it that to the refugees if they must continue suffering from heavy metal poisoning?” wrote the environmental doctor, Klaus-Dieter Runow in a letter to the GfbV in connection with the move to camp “Osterode”.

The head of the GfbV team, Paul Polansky, emphasised in a report to the Society for Threatened Peoples of 05.09.2006: “All the doctors who have visited “Osterode” say that this is not a safe place to treat people – particularly children with high lead values.” The recent report of the WHO shows a lead value of over 45 mg/dl in the case of 39 children. To date however only 16 children have been treated.

Earlier studies of the WHO from the years 2000, 2004, 2005 and 2006 show in the case of some children lead values of over 70 mg/dl. The New York State Health Department states that children manifesting a lead concentration of this level “must be admitted to hospital immediately” and are not allowed to return to the contaminated area. The children from “Osterode” with high lead values should really be taken to hospital in Belgrade for treatment. Since however neither the WHO nor the UNMIK see themselves responsible for taking the patients to Belgrade it simply remains to be seen how effective the treatment really is.

October 2006

The full text of the report is available here.