31 January 2009 – The World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe has identified excessive levels of environmental lead contamination, together with high human lead intoxication, in the municipalities of Mitrovicë/a and Zvecan (United Nations Administered Province of Kosovo).

Since 2000, WHO has called for interventions to address this public health emergency through: alleviation of the environmental exposure; provision of a “lead-safe” environment; provision of “lead-safe” occupations; improvement of public health (addressing poor living conditions and poverty), and provision of adequate case management and treatment for the affected population.

On 26-30 January, 2009 a WHO task force, together with experts from the United States Centers for Disease Control (US CDC) and the nongovernmental organization “Romano Them” visited the area in order to make an assessment of the current situation and to provide their report to WHO. As a result, the Task Force can highlight the following: WHO, as well as the Ministry of Health of Serbia and local health institutions, has carried out several assessments since 2000 in North and South Mitrovicë/a. Most data from those assessments have been validated by US CDC.

Since 2005 a comprehensive package of interventions has been delivered to the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian (RAE) residents of temporary camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Data clearly show a continuing decrease in the community’s mean blood lead levels.

The most significant improvement is seen in those who returned to the Roma Mahala district in South Mitrovicë/a. However, individual blood lead levels are still high.

Most IDPs have moved into Osterode camp as an interim solution to provide them with a healthier environment, with less exposure to lead.

Rebuilding of the Roma Mahala district is ongoing; however, the question of ongoing RAE residency in the temporary camps of Osterode and Cesmin Lug needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

The environmental hazard is still a risk to human health to the whole population of Mitrovicë/a and Zvecan.

Stakeholders, including the United Nations Kosovo Team (UNKT), UNMIK, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), Norway, the Netherlands, the United States of America, local institutions and many others, have been working to eliminate this risk.

Lead poisoning in this area poses a severe risk to the population of Mitrovicë/a. WHO appeals for better coordination and communication between the health institutions and is ready to provide technical assistance. WHO calls for attention to continue to be focused on environmental health.

The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) emphasized in 2006 that Camp Osterode “is an interim solution, it is not a permanent solution. The health situation of all of the residents, particularly the young children in the camps, is intolerable and really one of the worst health crises that we have in this part of Europe.”

WHO asks for those who are still living in temporary camps to be relocated to a lead-safe environment as soon as possible, and particularly for Cesmin Lug Camp to be closed as a matter of urgency, in order to avoid another wave of newcomers. The area near the tailing dams should be declared a hazardous place for humans.

WHO calls on national authorities to work together to diminish lead exposure in the area and to monitor the health of the population, both RAE and others, and it offers technical support to this end.