Text written by Angela Griep, Public Information Officer, UN Volunteers UNMIK
In the region of Mitrovica, high levels of lead in the environment build a significant risk for mental and physical health, especially for children under six years. UN Volunteers Hana Klimesova, a psychologist, and Elizabeth Morfaw, Health Risk Assessment Coordinator, are working for WHO (World Health Organization) on a survey about 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”, they explain. “We need a proof that the risk of lead exposure is still there. The research will also build a scientific basis for further actions and projects regarding the environmental pollution from heavy metals in this region”.
Trepca Mine Limited in Mitrovica was built in 1927. The smelter close to Zvecan commenced work in 1939. Because of the smelter and three huge tailing dams of the factory, environmental pollution in Mitrovica increased dramatically. In 2000 the smelter was closed down in order to reduce health risks caused by the pollution. But lead doesn’t decompose over the years. It stays in the soil, water, dust and food. The tailing dams up to now guarantee a regular supply of ‘fresh’ dust and soil contaminated with lead, which is brought by the wind to Mitrovica, Zvecan and the surrounding areas.
The human body absorbs lead through mouth, nose and skin. Mothers who are exposed to lead can intoxicate their unborn child through the placenta or their born child through breast-feeding. “Ninety nine per cent of the lead absorbed by an adult will leave the body through urine and feces, but only 32 per cent of the lead a child absorbs can be excreted” explains Hana. “Furthermore they often put their hands in their mouths and playing on the ground, being in much closer contact with contaminated soil and dust”, adds Elizabeth.
The results can be dramatic: 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 survey the two UNVs are conducting is divided into three parts: medical, environmental, psychological. First they reconstruct the environmental exposure history of the child, which is followed by the collection of environmental samples and laboratory analysis. “We compare the GPS coordinates of the home addresses with our 2002-2003 maps, which show the quantity of lead in milligrams per kilogram of soil in Mitrovica and its surrounding areas”, says Elizabeth giving an example. According to European standards the percentage of lead in residential soils shouldn’t exceed 450 mg/kg of soil. One zone of the region shows 450 mg/kg or less. Another one contains between 450 and 2000 milligrams of lead, and the third one – where North Mitrovica and Zvecan are – shows more than 2000.
To read the entire article: http://www.unmikonline.org/pub/focuskos/aug04/focuskmunaffair2.htm