Spare a thought for young scavengers


SCAVENGING is a worldwide problem. However, the problem is more prevalent in large cities in developing countries such as, Mexico, Thailand the Philippines and Tanzania.

I have seen children scavenging in all major towns and cities in Tanzania. But I have also seen young scavengers in Europe, America and Russia. Invariably, child scavengers live in conditions of extreme poverty and deprivation.

Early this week I talked to children scavenging in dumpsites in the city of Dar es Salaam. Some of children were in the company of a parent or, in few cases, both parents. I was amazed.

I found it a sorry spectacle, indeed. Families living in grinding poverty often think they have no dignity to defend. So, to them, scavenging is a small matter. In most cases it is the same street children that we see eating from garbage cans that visit dumpsites.

Young beggars and other socially disadvantaged children also scavenge. The habit is so compelling that the dumps are sometimes swarming with scavengers.

The most notorious scavengers are found in the city of Dar es Salaam where dumpsites are almost always overflowing with refuse shunted in from various sources including the port, hospitals, factories, garages and homes.

Scavenging children make their living by picking up and selling used paper, plastic, bottles, metal pieces, tins, rags, clothes and other objects from street garbage or dumpsites.

Adult scavengers do exactly the same. In Dar es Salaam scavengers find garbage shunted in from the port was the most attractive. They say truckloads of garbage invariably come with brand new items such as pens, toys, tiny radio sets and cheap watches, inadvertently discarded in garbage bins.

However, I must mention at the outset, that scavenging is not only demeaning but also a health hazard. It is a risky undertaking. Perhaps the most dangerous garbage in most dumpsites comes from hospitals, health centers, pharmacies and dispensaries.

Normally hospital refuse must be incinerated under close supervision. But somehow, some of the waste finds its way into the communal dumpsites. This is a bad practice that poses serious health risks to a large section of the population, especially scavengers.

The items commonly found in hospital refuse include bottles, used syringes, various types of needles and blades, cotton swabs or absorbent pads used in surgery, empty medicine containers and used bandages.

Most of these items are health hazards. Highly dangerous waste also comes from factories in the form of garbage laced with toxic chemicals, acids and poisons. Industrial effluents often flow into dumpsites.

Barefoot scavengers or those wearing sandals risk of treading on corrosive matter. Garbage coming from homes, which is friendlier to scavengers, shunts in leftovers of food.

But it may also contain repulsive matter such as animal or even human faeces. It is remiss not to mention here that not all scavenging children come from poor families.

Children hailing from affluent families use dumpsites as playgrounds. They often visit dumps to sort through piles of waste looking for toys, and eating leftovers is highly likely.

Once in the dumpsites wealthy children and the poor incur the same health risks. Medical doctors say scavenging children can easily contract HIV/ AIDS from accidental needle pricks or incisions from discarded surgical blades.

And these are not the only health risks posed by dumpsites where flies abound and snakes lurk. In fact, scavengers carry out their tasks in a highly unhealthy and dangerous environment where they are exposed to infectious diseases, including hepatitis A and B, tetanus, coliform and even HIV/AIDS, medical experts say.

The scavengers are also at risk of laceration from glass and sharp metal plates. When the dumps are burning the scavengers are exposed to toxic fumes and volatile compounds from hot plastic or other materials.

The risk of respiratory impairments or residual long-term asthma is high. While scrambling for items at the time of dumping young scavengers run the risk of being run over by large machines such as bulldozers or dump trucks.

They are also likely to be buried and suffocated by moving mounds of garbage. Thermal stress and burns are other health risks. Since disadvantaged children are almost always hungry, they eat discarded leftovers of food quite readily risking typhoid infection.

Food poisoning and other digestive disorders from eating rancid leftovers are also frequent. Unfor tunately it is these poor children who often lack access to health care services.

These minors, many of whom are homeless, cannot afford medication. In an International Labour Organisation study on young scavengers in the Philippines recently a range of health complications were diagnosed in the children.

The complications included high levels of lead and mercury in their blood. Many suffered from impaired lung functions; tetanus, a presence of parasites and a range of skin disorders.

The bodies of the young scavengers also bore weals from occasional battering and even gunshots. They were also despicably dirty. Scavenging children have enemies you might never imagine.

Stray dogs and housecats often compete for leftovers of food in garbage cans with destitute children. Since dogs and cats have a more acute sense of smell they tend to discover and get at leftovers faster.

So children often pelt dogs and cats with stones in a fight over leftovers in the dank alleys and garbage dumps -- a case of survival for the fittest. It is a repulsive scenario. I hope poverty alleviation initiatives will eventually rescue scavenging children from starvation.

Scavenging is morally reprehensible and is normally shunned by society. Families that live close to dumpsites have a sticky problem keeping their children away from the filth.

It is the municipal or city authorities that should strive to solve the problem. If all garbage heaps in the dumps were incinerated thoroughly at the time of dumping no one would have gone there to rummage through the ash.

Factories and hospitals should have special incinerators or waste treatment plants to deal with dangerous effluents and refuse. Taking hazardous waste to dumps spells health risks.

Parents should keep a protective eye on children making sure they do not visit dumps. Children aged eight years to 14 are the most difficult to control. I wish everyone good parenting.

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