Health Problems Haunt Child Scavengers

Sitting on massive piles of steamy garbage, Pha Phalla, 11, and her sister Pha Phally, 9, denied they have any health problems.

In between sniffs and coughs, the two explained that they root through trash at Stung Mean­chey dump every day, hoping to find metal to sell to nearby vendors. They said they have worked as scavengers for more than a year, and Pha Phally admitted that in the beginning she had a problem with the smell.

“At first I wanted to vomit all the time, but it doesn’t bother me anymore,” the 9-year-old said. “I like this area because I can earn money, although it is small money.‘‘

They said they each make between 500 and 600 riel a day.

But low pay is not the only problem for young scavengers—although family poverty is usually what leads them to hunt for scraps in the garbage, said Sebastien Marot, coordinator for Mith Samlanh/Friends, an NGO that works with impoverished youth.

Child scavengers suffer from a host of health problems. They are frequently cut by the glass and metal they collect—and poor hygiene causes them to develop skin diseases and respiratory infections, Marot said.

“The health risks are horrendous…and it stinks like hell,’’ Marot said.

Because they usually do not wear protective gear, children run the risk of getting stuck by needles, said Anita Dodds, spokes­woman for the NGO World Vision, which has a health care and education drop-in center near Stung Meanchey dump.

About 45 percent of children working at the dump have severe respiratory infections because of hours of exposure to toxic fumes rolling off the heaps of rubbish, she said.

The smell caused Hov Vith, 14, to get so nauseous on his first day at the dump that he said he would never go back. But he had to—his parents cannot work because they are too sick. He does not know what is wrong with them, but said they both scavenged at the dump for about a year before becoming too weak to work.

Hov Vith said he used to get a fever, feel dizzy and get headaches, but now he is used to it. Then he stretched out an arm to reveal a long scar.

“Glass,” he said.

Injuries and sickness aside, the 14-year-old all but lives at the dump. He says he gets two hours of sleep a night on top of the piles of trash so he can be up and ready to greet the dump trucks and start scavenging at 2 am. He works until 2 pm and then attends second grade at Stung Meanchey Primary School until 5 pm. Then, after a quick bite at his parents’ house, he goes back to work.

“I feel tired and hungry,” he said, “I work hard every day. But I have to.”

Scavenging is the most common occupation of children ages 14 and younger, Marot said, referring to a Friends report released in April. The job is relatively easy for kids without the skills or experience to find more lucrative work, he said.

Most of the child scavengers are working to help their families, he said. Often the children must scavenge because their parents have fallen ill and cannot work.

Scavengers who do not work at the dump can be seen sifting through trash on the streets of Phnom Penh. These children frequently hold other jobs, such as begging or shoe shining, because garbage there is not as abundant as at the huge Stung Meanchey dump site, Marot said

Although the dump’s large concentration of trash causes health problems, those working on the street have other issues to deal with.

Marot said that kids working on the street can fall prey to all types of abuse, such as rape, robbery and kidnapping. Some children around the age of 12 get pulled off the streets and sold into the sex trade, he said.

Both Marot and Dodds said scavengers on the street also run the risk of getting hit by cars or motorbikes.

But at Stung Meanchey dump, the trucks that bring in about 730 tons of garbage a day sometimes back over and kill small children, said Svay Loan, director of the dump.

“I wish I could control the amount of kids working here,” he said Tuesday, “because whenever the trucks get here they hang off the side to get to the garbage during the dumping.”

And sometimes they fall off, he said, recalling an incident last year in which a 14-year-old girl fell off a truck and was killed beneath its tires.

Yoeun Yem, 14, said he had been scavenging the dump for more than two years and has seen about 10 children hit and killed since he started working there.

“They want to be the first ones to [scavenge] the truck so they can increase their livelihood,” Dodds said. “It’s severe poverty that increases their likelihood of being injured.”

Chheang Duth Dy, 10, said she has worked at the dump for so long, she cannot even remember when she started. She has never been to school. The 10-year-old said she is healthy, but held out her hands to display an itchy rash.

“Maybe I’ll be here forever,” she said, as she started rooting around in the rubbish for paper, plastic, iron or aluminum. “I have no other skills.”

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