27 May 2008 – A survey, which was produced by the Institute of Public Health in Kosovska Mitrovica at the request of the representatives of the IDP camps in Northern Mitrovica confirmed previous allegations, according to which the lead level in the blood of Romani children living in these camps has remained at an alarmingly high level. Out of the 104 children tested, aged between 1 and 16 years, 18 have shown lead levels exceeding the critical ceiling of 45 μg/dL, beyond which doctors recommend chelation therapy. However, if it is confirmed that the indications, “Hi” and “Hi Mnogo” contained in the survey, actually refer to blood levels exceeding 65 μg/dL, which cannot be measured with standard equipment, the number of children with a critically high level of lead contamination in their blood goes up to 38, or 36.5 percent of the surveyed group.
Lead contamination in the blood of the Romani children in the IDP camps in North Mitrovica has been a recurrent issue since 2000, when first random tests carried out in the area of Kosovska Mitrovica by a UN consultant showed dangerously lead levels only in the camps. In 2004, the World Health Organisation had another test series carried out. These tests showed that 40 percent of the children in the area had blood lead levels of 10 μg/dL and above, which was considered until recently as the upper limit beyond which irreversible health damages including impacts on the learning abilities occur.
But, as the then Health Environment Programme Manager of the WHO, Gerry McWeeney, noted in his report, the Romani children in the camps presented consistently the highest blood lead levels of the entire population, highlighting that a major source of exposure stemmed from the contamination in the soil resulting from the proximity of the Trepca mines. As a consequence, he recommended the immediate evacuation of children between 0 and 6 years and pregnant women and the temporary relocation of the entire camp “while a permanent and sustainable solution is made”.
It was not however before Summer 2005, when NGOs succeeded in mounting pressure and the topic made it into international media headlines, that action was finally taken. By the end of the year, UNMIK decided to relocate the IDPs to the former French military compound, known as Osterode camp, which was entirely refurbished, and the soil decontaminated. Giving up their initial resistance, most of the families moved to the new camp, where a specialised medical treatment was apparently started in September 2006 (see UNMIK Press Release).
Quite ironically, the probes which were collected now, seem to suggest that the lead contamination in the refurbished Osterode camp is still higher than in Cesmin Lug, for which the WHO declared in October 2004, that the situation was worse than in other camps with the levels of lead contamination in the soil exceeding the 359,5 times the safe limits.
In May 2007, a team of US doctors conducted Ms. Mary Jean Brown, Chief of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, visited the facilities at the request of the US Department of State, USOP and USAID. In a report issued in October, the medical experts noted that 39 children were reportedly chelated. But they also said that up to 90 children might be in need of a chelation therapy, adding that the exact number could not be determined at that time.
In their survey, the doctors referred to the results of three series of tests conducted by the Institute of Public Health in North Mitrovica, between Fall 2005 and early Summer 2007. According to these tests, about 39 children in the first round, 32 children in the second round, and 29 children in the third round, of about 100 children being tested, had capillary blood lead levels superior to 45 μg/dL. If the assumption regarding the significance of the “Hi” and “Hi mnogo” references prove true, the health condition of the children in the camps would have stagnated, at least, which would also confirm doubts as to the adequacy of providing a medical treatment in an environment which is still heavily contaminated by lead.
First information about a new, ongoing health crisis in the camps in Northern Mitrovica transpired last week in an article, which was published in the internet magazine New Kosovo Report. Its author, the leader of the pro-independence movement Albin Kurti, alleged that the World Health Organisation had had new blood samples taken among the children living in Cesmin Lug and Osterode showing that the lead levels in their had doubled. He even suggested that the WHO was withholding these information from the public.
Alarmed by this news, Romano Them, contacted the WHO office in Pristina and asked for confirmation of the statement and about eventual consequences drawn from the results. In spite of a clear reference to the article in the New Kosovo Report, included in the mail, the WHO local director, Dr. Dorit Nitzan, feigned to ignore which tests Romano Them was talking about. Stating that laboratory tests had so far been carried out by local institutions, she nevertheless promised to investigate into the issue and asked Romano Them to be patient until her return to Kosovo. Further emails, relating to the results of earlier tests commissioned by the WHO remained without a response.
In a similar reaction, the head of the UNICEF office in Kosovo, Robert Fuderich, also pretended to ignore about the tests, but when confronted with the partial results, released by the camp representatives in a public statement, acknowledged that his organisation had been aware about the results of these tests, but was waiting to have full information in order “to notify proper authorities and try to get everyone to work toward a final and just solution.”
The area representative of the Norwegian Church Aid, a Christian charity in charge of the management of the Osterode camp, Ragnar Hansen, was more outspoken and said that his organisation shared Romano Them’s concerns about the lead levels in the blood of the IDP children. He regretted however not to be able to comment on the results of the tests suggesting that the WHO had not communicated the results of previous tests, neither to his organisation, nor to the children’s parents.
From his email it goes out, that the WHO had seen (!!!) the results of the tests commissioned by the Roma representatives and was “concerned about the high level of led in the blood samples collected”.
Romano Them also tried to get a reaction from UNMIK, which was still pending at the time of writing.
In her recommendations, Dr. Brown, whose center had also been requested for assistance in this case by UNICEF and the WHO, wrote in October 2007: “We have been given assurances that blood levels are decreasing, and the data received by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] support that. Nonetheless, complete data need to be made available. Agencies Responsible: WHO.”
Seven months later, the “confusion on the part of the Roma leaders and others as to the seriousness of the problem and the extent of the environmental contamination”, which Dr Brown refers to in her report, is still as much complete. In their statement on the recent blood tests, the representatives of the camps, Skender Gusani and Dai Mustafa, write: “World Health Organization (WHO) did testing of the children’s blood lead levels and the results shown that the Roma camp Ostorode is save from lead, but the results of those testing were never shown to public, not even to the parents of the tested children.”
Romano Them is deeply concerned, not only by the issue of lead-poisoning itself, but even more by the lack of information and miscommunication from the side of international agencies involved in the process. It calls to the United Nations Mission in Kosovo to provide immediate and comprehensive information about the lead contamination in the two IDP camps Cesmin Lug and Osterode and urges the WHO to implement the recommendations contained in the memorandum, which was prepared by the then Environmental Programme Manager, Gerry McWeeney, who, in October 2004, advised that all children with blood levels above 10 μg/dL should be retested every week.
Sharing concerns about the adequacy of a chelation therapy in an environment, which is still heavily contaminated by lead, which seem to be confirmed by the present tests, Romano Them ultimately suggests to give serious consideration to the evacuation of the residents of the camps to a safe environment. Consultations with them should be opened immediately.
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Related news items and press releases:
UNMIK: SRSG welcomes start of lead-toxicity treatment for IDPs in Camp Osterode, UNMIK/PR/1577, 1 September 2006
UNICEF: Roma families need rehousing to save children from lead poisoning, 10 February 2006
UNMIK, WHO and UNICEF renew call for immediate temporary relocation of Roma IDPs as an emergency health requirement, (Press release, 9 February 2006)
UNMIK: SRSG visits Cesmin Lug, urges Roma to take advantage of Camp Osterode Facilities, UNMIK/PR/1476, 11 January 2006
UNMIK/OCRM: Osterode: A safe passage to permanent homes (no publication date)
Toxic camp angers Kosovo Roma, BBC, 13 June 2005
Displaced Gypsies at Risk From Lead in Kosovo Camps, The New York Times, 5 February 2006
Refuge for Roma proved a deathtrap, IHT, 5 February 2005
World Health Organisation (WHO): Preliminary Report on Blood Lead Levels in North Mitrovica and Zvecan, July 2004
WHO: Memorandum, 22 October 2004
WHO: Regional Committee for Europe, Fifty-sixth session Copenhagen, 11-14 September 2006, Provisional agenda item 7(d): Enhancing health security: the challenges in the WHO European Region and the health sector response, 19 June 2006
Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (GfBV): Flüchtlingslager Osterode, 18 September 2006
European Roma Rights Center (ERRC): Romani Return to the Mitrovica Mahalla Marred with Problems
UN Human Rights Committee: Consideration of reports submitted by states parties under article 40 of the convenant: Concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee: Kosovo (Serbia), 14 August 2006
Brown, Mary Jean/Brooks, Barry: Recommendations for Preventing Lead Poisoning among the Internally Displaced Roma Population in Kosovo from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta/GA, 27 October 2007
Roma and Ashkali Documentation Centre (RADC): Security review of the RAE communities in the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, Pristina, September 2007