By NICHOLAS WOOD
MITROVICA, Kosovo, Jan. 31 — Nikolina Mehmeti looks like any healthy 3-year-old girl. She has big eyes, a coy smile and babbles to anyone ready to listen. But a year and a half ago her parents were worried for her life.
After catching a high fever in the refugee camp where her family lived, Nikolina started to have a seizure, her mother said.
"Her limbs turned blue, and she was shaking," said Nikolina's mother, Zalibena Mehmeti, one of this city's Roma, often known as Gypsies.
Minutes later, the girl slipped into unconsciousness. "You couldn't tell if she was dead or alive," her mother said. Nikolina's parents were all the more anxious because her sister Jenita died after exhibiting similar symptoms three months earlier.
It was a half year before Nikolina was treated for lead poisoning and firmly regained consciousness.
Roma rights groups say that up to 31 Roma have been killed by diseases brought on by lead poisoning, a problem that grew acute for them six and half years ago. That was when the United Nations mission that controls this province set up three refugee camps in the north part of the city for Roma who were displaced when ethnic Albanians took their homes across town at the end of the Kosovo war in 1999.
The death toll is especially large for a local Roma community of just 570 people, and no one disputes the main source of pollution. All three refugee camps lie within 200 yards of three huge mounds of industrial waste, the byproduct of a lead smelting factory that operated from the 1920's until 2000.
Health specialists say children are particularly vulnerable to this kind of pollution. Soon after the Roma moved in, the United Nations realized that they were living on contaminated land. Several reports by the United Nations mission and the World Health Organization dating to 2000 recommended their immediate removal.
But the Roma remained in their wooden huts, built by aid agencies, and in a hodgepodge of metal and particle board shacks that they had put up themselves.
Now the mission is planning to move families from all three camps to refurbished army barracks, where it says they will be safe.
"The W.H.O. considers this the worst environmental disaster for children in the whole of Europe," said Gerry McWeeney, an environmental epidemiologist for the World Health Organization in Mitrovica and the author of a 2004 report on the effects of the poisoning. "There are around 100,000 to 130,000 people affected by this," she said.
It is hard to miss the two vast hills of reddish gray debris from which toxic dust blows across the north part of the city. Each holds tons of industrial waste. They are about 90 feet high and 500 yards long, and stretch out of the city through a valley. Water runs off the hills and streams into the River Ibar, where in summer children play and bathe. The third dump lies outside town.
Medical specialists say overall health conditions in the refugee camps make them even more vulnerable to contamination.
Camp residents do not have running water in their homes, so they have fewer opportunities to wash their hands and food, thereby increasing the risk of contamination.
"Their skin goes yellow," said Flanza Jahirovic, a 31-year-old mother who lives in one of the camps, said of the children. "They are often feeble and dizzy, and they just want to sleep."
Tests conducted last October by Klaus Dietrich-Runow, a German medical doctor and environmental specialist, showed that all the children tested had high lead levels, most dangerously so, and had high levels of antimony, arsenic, cadmium and manganese. "The levels of toxic metals like lead, arsenic, antimony and cadmium are the highest levels that have ever have been measured in human hair samples," Dr. Dietrich-Runow wrote via e-mail. His claim could not be independently verified.
Lead poisoning can stunt growth and cause irreversible brain and nerve damage, suppression of the immune system, anemia and renal failure. It can also cause speech, language and behavioral problems.
United Nations officials say the effects of lead poisoning among the Roma may have been compounded by an illegal lead trade in the camps, which involved melting down car batteries, a practice they say has been stopped.
In 2000, when the United Nations had been in Kosovo for a year, international officials seemed acutely aware of the dangers posed by lead poisoning.
The leader of the United Nations mission, Bernard Kouchner of France, a doctor and politician, ordered a military operation to close the smelter.
But since then, parts of the United Nations mission appear to have lost sight of the hazards.
Within the last three years, local authorities built a running track between refugee camps and the toxic mounds. A United Nations sign written in English, Serbian and Albanian at one end of the course, which joggers still use, says "Alley of Health."
Last August, international officials began a campaign to alert the Roma to the risks of lead poisoning, and in November work began on the former army barracks, though it is adjacent to two of the refugee camps and close to the toxic hills.
Asked why the mission could not have acted earlier, Remi Dourlot, a spokesman, said it had "other priorities," like establishing security in the region, and that unstable conditions might have made relocation impractical.
Officials working on the $1.6 million refurbishing of the barracks said the site would be washed down once a week with a fire truck to prevent lead dust from contaminating it.
The United Nations has also begun work on a $9.7 million project to rebuild the Roma community's original homes in southern Mitrovica.
Some health specialist and members of industry in the region say the barracks is an improvement, but that the underlying safety of the city is no better.
"The whole region is polluted," said Charles Carron-Brown, the manager of the Trepca Mines complex that runs the lead smelting factory, which continues some operations. "You won't find anywhere that isn't polluted." He said the United Nations planned to cover all three toxic mounds, but until funds were found, most of the city would remain polluted.
The Roma are not convinced that their health will be better in the barracks.
"They're telling us there will be less lead there, but I can't see the difference," said Latif Musurica, who noted that the new camp was just 164 feet from his current home.