Lead poisoning fears at Greek refugee camp built on military site

Fragments of old ammunition have been found at Kara Tepe, raising fears of lead poisoning [Courtesy: Aegean Boat Report]

Asylum seekers living at a new refugee camp in Lesbos, which was built by the Greek army on a former military shooting range following the burning of Moria last month, could be at serious risk of lead poisoning.

Camp residents have documented finding bullet casings, shrapnel, and other forms of used ammunition scattered around the camp in Kara Tepe, which is built on grounds which were for decades used by Greek soldiers for firing practice and training.

Humanitarian organisations on the ground said authorities have attempted to clean up the detritus with metal detectors, but only after refugees moved to the site.

“A few days ago, I found three bullets next to my tent where I sleep,” said a 25-year-old Afghan refugee, who requested anonymity.

Al Jazeera has several photos taken by refugees at the camp of used bullets and ammunition.

Used bullets have been found in the Kara Tepe refugee camp [Courtesy: Aegean Boat Report]

Toxicology experts have warned that the site could pose a serious health risk, even if all the bullets were removed due to invisible residue.

“It’s not just the bullets themselves, but the fragments of dust that sit in the atmosphere,” said Alastair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at the Leeds Institute of Genetics, Health and Therapeutics.

Hay called for testing to be carried out immediately on the site and blood samples taken from child refugees that have been living on it.

“Shooting ranges are well-recognised sites of higher lead concentrations,” he said. “Lead degrades very slowly so sites can be dangerous for decades, even longer, and the damaging impact of lead is irrefutable.”

In adults, lead exposure can cause long-term harm including kidney damage, high blood pressure and miscarriage; in children, lead attacks the brain and central nervous system to cause convulsions, comas and death, according to the World Health Organization.

The Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum confirmed that until earlier this year, the Kara Tepe site had been an active military shooting range.

According to the latest figures, there are currently 8,630 refugees, including significant numbers of women and children, living on the site, which was set up in less than a week.

Greece is facing mounting accusations of mishandling the refugee crisis, including reports of illegal “pushbacks” of refugees at sea, terrible living conditions in camps and violations of asylum law.

Stella Nanou, the Greek representative for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which supports Greek authorities on Kara Tepe, was concerned about conditions.

“The safety of the site, in relation to both its location close to the sea and its use as a former military shooting range, has been an issue of concern and UNHCR, as well as other organisations, have raised this with the responsible Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum,” said Nanou.

The United Nations was previously embroiled in criticism over lead poisoning that caused seizures and brain damage in child refugees at a UN-run camp in Kosovo, after the end of the war in 1999, which was near an industrial mine.

“It’s really concerning,” said Katharina Rall, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, who worked on reports into the Kosovo contamination. “The risks of lead exposure are so well known. They are knowingly putting people in serious danger, particularly small children and pregnant women.”

Alexandros Ragavas, a spokesperson for the migration ministry, denied claims that Kara Tepe was cleared after the refugees had moved in.

“It was cleared before with metal detectors,” he said. “All the necessary actions to ensure the environmental, health, and infrastructure conditions are safe have been clearly taken.”

Pavlos Kapantais reported from Athens.