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Children poisoned picking tobacco, study finds

Child labourers in Africa's tobacco fields are slowly being poisoned by their exposure to high levels of nicotine and tobacco dust, while multinational companies increasingly shift their tobacco production to Africa, a new study says.

Many of the child workers, some as young as 5 years old, are exposed to the equivalent of 36 cigarettes a day as a result of absorbing nicotine through their skin from the tobacco leaves that they handle, according to the study to be released today by Plan International, a development agency based in Britain.

The children described how they have trouble breathing, suffer headaches and chest pains, and even cough blood as a result of toiling for up to 12 hours a day as tobacco pickers in the African country of Malawi, one of the biggest tobacco producers in the world.

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Until recently, much of the North American cigarette industry was getting its tobacco from farmers in southwestern Ontario and North Carolina and similar tobacco belts. But the tobacco industry is shifting its harvest away from North America and into poorer countries such as Malawi, where labour is much cheaper. Most of the child workers are earning barely $5 a month.

At least 78,000 children are working on tobacco farms in Malawi, but the true number is probably much higher, the study says. Malawi has the highest level of child labour in southern Africa, and virtually all of the children work in the agricultural sector. Tobacco is the main export product in Malawi, generating 70 per cent of its export income.

The study, based on lengthy interviews with 44 child labourers in Malawi, found that the children do not wear any protective equipment to shield them from tobacco juice and pesticides.

"They described picking tobacco with bare hands, carrying large bundles of picked leaves, sorting, sewing and carrying the large bales. They also describe how during the picking season their hands are sticky with juice from the tobacco. They do not have access to water and soap, so this residue stayed on their hands even when they eat."

Many of the children appeared to have the symptoms of green tobacco sickness, a common hazard of working on tobacco farms, the study found. The symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, weakness, headaches, abdominal pain and difficulty in breathing - all of which were reported in varying degrees by the children."It starts as a little cough but it goes on for a long time," one child told the researchers. "Sometimes it feels like you don't have enough breath, you don't have enough oxygen. You reach a point where you cannot breathe in because of the pain in your chest. Then the blood comes when you vomit."

Children are particularly vulnerable to green tobacco sickness because of their small body size.

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Tobacco road

Malawi has the highest incidence of child labour in southern Africa. About , 78,000* children work on tobacco farms. They are subjected to long hours, little pay, physical and sexual abuse and they are poisoned by exposure to large amounts of dissolved nicotine in the field.

In a sample of 44 children, an array of symptoms were reported

Physical symptoms............................................... Number of children

Pains in the body ( shoulders, knees, back)................44

Blisters on hands............................................................44

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Headaches......................................................................42

General body weakness................................................37

Difficulty breathing..........................................................34

Pain in chest...................................................................33

Abdominal cramps ........................................................32

Coughing.........................................................................30

Nausea and vomiting.....................................................24

Dizziness.........................................................................14

Coughing blood..............................................................14

Bleeding nose...................................................................6

* the figure is thought to be much higher. ,

THE GLOBE AND MAIL 66 SOURCE: PLAN MALAWI

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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