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World at work: Charcoal producing industries in northeastern Brazil
  1. M Kato1,
  2. D M DeMarini3,
  3. A B Carvalho1,
  4. M A V Rego2,
  5. A V Andrade1,
  6. A S V Bonfim1,
  7. D Loomis4
  1. 1Fundacentro-CRBA, Salvador, 41820–770, Brazil
  2. 2Department of Preventive Medicine, Federal University of Bahia, Salvador, 41100-100, Brazil
  3. 3Environmental Carcinogenesis Division, US Environmental Protection Agency, Research Triangle Park, NC 27711, USA
  4. 4Departments of Epidemiology and Environmental Sciences and Engineering, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina, CB-7435, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7435, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr M Kato
 Fundacentro-CRBA, r. Alceu Amoroso Lima, 142, Pituba, Salvador/Bahia, 41820-770, Brazil;

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A poorly mechanised process, dependent on human labour

The charcoal production process has been known since the Bronze Age, and was vital to metallurgy until the discovery of the conversion of coal to coke at the beginning of the 18th century.1 Brazil, now the largest charcoal producer of the world, with more than 12 million metric tons in year 2002,2 has preserved its charcoal based industries in large part because it has extensive iron deposits and very few coal mines.3


In Brazil, charcoal is produced on an industrial scale primarily by carbonisation of wood in masonry kilns, in a poorly mechanised process that is highly dependent on human labour.1,4 We observed the charcoal producing process in the northeastern area of Bahia State, Brazil, and identified the following tasks.


Charcoal making begins with the falling of trees, usually Eucalyptus or Pinus grown in plantations. After lumberjacks have cut the tree using a chain saw, helpers take away the branches, and the timber is cut to size and allowed to air dry.

Transportation of wood

Wood transporters pile up logs in areas that tractors or trucks can access. Tractor and truck helpers load timber in the cutting areas and pile it at the kiln area. Helpers travel from the cutting area to the kiln area on the top of the log pile on the loaded vehicle. Workers stay on the top of the pile for the loading and unloading process (fig 1).

Figure 1

 Unloading a tractor trailer in the kiln area.

Filling the kiln

Up to hundreds of brick kilns are built in each site, in single or multiple lines so that they can be loaded and unloaded consecutively. The shape of the kilns varies from a hemisphere to a cylinder with round tops; the latter can be up to 2.5 m high, and …

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  • Ethics approval: This study received the approval of the Institutional Review Board of the University of North Carolina, School of Public Health, the Bioethics Committee of the Centro Estadual de Oncologia in Brasil, and the Human Subjects Research Review Official of the US Environmental Protection Agency.