Malawi child tobacco pickers exposed to nicotine poisoning

Child tobacco pickers in Malawi are being regularly exposed to extremely high levels of nicotine poisoning, according to a new report by international children’s organisation Plan.

The report ‘Hard work, little pay and long hours’ reveals that child labourers, some as young as five, are suffering severe physical symptoms from absorbing up to 54 milligrams a day of dissolved nicotine through their skin – the equivalent of 50 average cigarettes.

As the tobacco industry continues to shift its production to developing countries, more vulnerable children are being exposed to these hazardous working conditions. It is estimated that over 78,000 children work on tobacco estates across Malawi – some up to 12 hours a day, many for less than 1pence (1.7US cents) an hour and without protective clothing.

Through Plan’s participatory research, children revealed the physical, sexual and emotional abuse they suffered and spoke about the need to work under exploitative conditions to support themselves, their families and pay school fees. They reported common symptoms of Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS), or nicotine poisoning, including severe headaches, abdominal pain, muscle weakness, coughing and breathlessness.

“Sometimes it feels like you don’t have enough breath, you don’t have enough oxygen. You reach a point where you cannot breathe because of the pain in your chest. Then the blood comes when you vomit. At the end, most of this dies and then you remain with a headache,” one child said.

Everyday symptoms of GTS are more severe in children than adults as they have not built up a tolerance to nicotine through smoking and because of their physical size. There is a lack of research into the long term effects of GTS in children, but experts believe that it could seriously impair their development.

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