NEW YORK -- Evidence of possibly the most severe and widespread lead poisoning ever has been uncovered at the site of one of Europe's largest lead smelters, a city in the Kosova region of Yugoslavia, researchers reported Tuesday.
More than one in 10 children under the age of 3 in the city of Kosovska Mitrovica were found to have blood-lead levels greater than twice the safe level, the researchers said in a report, 'Archives of Environmental Health.'
'It appears to be the most severe and widespread lead poisoning in the history of man,' Dr. Joseph Graziano of Columbia University said in an interview.
Graziano and co-author Dr. Dusan Popovac of the Kosovska Mitrovica Medical Center said the affected children could suffer convulsions, severe neurological damage, coma and even death.
'It could happen here in the United States,' Graziano said, 'especially since the enforcement power of the Environmental Protection Agency has been weakened.'
'Yugoslavia has air quality standards and laws similar to those in the United States, but there is no enforcement -- thus the current tragic situation,' he said.
'If current policies continue in the United States, enforcement could virtually disappear as it has in Yugoslavia,' Graziano said.
Children in Kosovska Mitrovica were examined in February and August of 1978, and in December 1980. Blood-lead levels were found increased each time, Graziano said.
Twelve percent of the children had levels of 70 micrograms per deciliter (ug-dl). The rest had lower levels but above levels considered safe -- 29 ug-dl.
The report noted that Kosova's rich coal and mineral resources have brought major industry to the predominantly poor farming area but in 1979, the lead smelter alone emitted more than six tons of lead dust every day.
Of 60,000 people living in the vicinity of the smelter, the overwhelming majority have dangerously high blood lead concentrations, the report said.
Young children are suffering the most. Their immature nervous systems are extremely sensitive to lead poisoning and the normal hand-to-mouth activity of youngsters virtually guarantees the ingestion of lead dust.
The enormous lead emissions probably contribute to the high rates of infant mortality, miscarriage and other serious health problems in the Yugoslav community, the report said.
Graziano said the study was done at the request of the World Bank which is funding redevelopment in the Yugoslav city. He said as a part of the funding arrangement, facilities built cannot be detrimental to health of people in the surrounding area.
He said a new smelter has been designed to be less polluting.