Chapter 2 - Petrol sniffing - the causes and impact
Petrol sniffing is one of a range of activities commonly
known as 'volatile substance misuse', 'solvent abuse' and 'volatile substance
abuse' which refers to inhalation of fumes from glues, liquid solvents, petrol
and fuel gases, aerosols, nitrites and fire extinguisher propellants.
Petrol fumes can be inhaled directly from a plastic
bag, saturated rag or small container either through the nose, or through the
mouth. The toxic chemicals in petrol enter the bloodstream quickly via the
lungs to the brain and depress the central nervous system, which produces a
response that can be described as:
...the sensation of euphoria and excitement, the feeling of
numbness, help users forget the daily troubles of growing up in dysfunctional
Examining the reasons why people sniff petrol and
analysing the impact on the individual, the community and society highlights
the complexity of this issue. The causes are multiple and interrelated and the
impacts, given the relative small numbers of sniffers, are considerable. The
causes of petrol sniffing have been canvassed at length in a range of the
inquiries and reports referred to in chapter 1.
Causes of petrol sniffing
In remote Indigenous communities there is limited
access to most goods and services, including a wide variety of drugs. Petrol,
compared to illicit and even licit drugs, is relatively accessible both in
terms of availability and cost. The fact that some communities are suffering
enormous problems because of petrol sniffing, while others do not, is
perplexing and raises complex questions.
The causes of petrol sniffing are multiple and relate
to each other in complex ways. Many are specific to individual communities and
include: the cultural, family and social disruption that has resulted from dispossession
and colonisation; boredom and frustration; individual psycho-social factors,
such as family breakdown and neglect; social isolation; peer group pressure; low
self-esteem and the need for identity; lack of employment options; poverty; a
statement of non-conformity; and an attraction to excitement and pleasure.
Social and economic disadvantage
Socioeconomic causes of petrol sniffing highlighted
during the Committee's inquiry included poverty, hunger, boredom, unemployment,
inadequate housing and escaping from abuse. CAYLUS commented:
Young people in Central Australia sniff
petrol because it is the best thing on offer. They sniff because their friends
do, because their family is drinking or dead, because petrol is readily
available, because they are hungry and they sniff to get away from pain.
Poverty and hunger
One of the common reasons for sniffing cited during the
Committee's inquiry was that sniffing reduces the feeling of hunger. Poverty in
most Indigenous communities means that there is not enough food or food of
sufficient nutritional value and many, especially children and young adults, go
Perhaps it is the basic fact that they do not have enough food
at home. As I am sure has been brought to your attention, sometimes kids sniff
just because they do not have enough to eat and petrol and paint kills the
In my experience, too, quite often kids are not only bored but
they are hungry and sometimes they use it as an appetite suppressant. I have
been told that via reports back from workers in the Kimberley...when
you go to remote communities the best houses do belong to the nursing staff,
the teachers and the police. The rest of the community are living in complete
poverty. These sorts of things are other underlying factors that lead to the
quick fix to get out of it, just escape reality for a little while, and get rid
of their hunger.
There have been several substantive studies on the subject of
nutrition and I do not want to go into those. Nutritious food is essential to
all people living in a remote community, just as it is in all areas. With lack
of disposable incomes, people are simply in debt to some agencies and cannot
possibly hope to come out of that cycle with the regulations that are
reinforced at the present time. With little money and inadequate food, it is
little wonder that kids turn to sniffing, in some cases, to dull the pangs of
Lack of employment opportunities
The absence of hope, aspiration and opportunity to work,
develop, learn and grow are further reasons cited why young people sniff petrol
in Indigenous communities. Mr Andrei
Koeppen, Chief Executive Officer of the Yugul
Mangi Community Government Council in the Northern
Whether it is petrol, grog or ganja, the root cause is the same.
Hopelessness. Job opportunities are very limited. Career paths are
non-existent. Housing is in such a crisis that around 20 people are sharing a
three bedroom house designed for four people. There is no furniture in the
houses. There is virtually no support for self-employment initiatives. People
die here thirty years younger than the average Australian.
The impact of meaningful work for local community
members cannot be understated. Mr Bill
Edwards provided a historical perspective:
Fathers who were stockmen once provided a model for their sons
who drew cowboy hats and boots on water tanks and aspired to wear these
articles of clothing. A boy may now have the model of an unemployed, drunk and
violent father...Employment opportunities have diminished despite the influx of
capital works funding because work on the projects has to meet specifications
or be completed by a due date. Whereas local men once made and laid bricks,
mixed cement and laid foundations and sawed and hammered timber, much of the
construction work on new schools, hospitals, stores and even Aboriginal
housing, is now done by outside contractors.
The Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia
emphasised the need for employment opportunities:
Paid employment is important in giving people sense of self
worth and addressing issues of boredom as well as providing an income. Given
these are underlying causative factors of substance misuse, the importance of
strategies that aim to increase training and employment opportunities as a part
of a long term plan addressing petrol sniffing is great.
Shortage of housing
The shortage of housing in many Indigenous communities
creates problems of overcrowding and lack of privacy, feelings of anger and
frustration, reduced child safety as well as hygiene and health care issues. Mr Donovan
Walmbeng from the Aurukun Community Justice
Group stated 'there are big families that are trying to get a house but they
cannot. There is a shortage of housing in the Aurukun community.'
Aboriginal people have a strong cultural connection to traditional
land which encompasses wide open spaces. The overcrowding and absence of
appropriate levels of housing and in local communities creates many problems. Dr
Brian McCoy stated:
It can also create great tension, because the planning of these
communities involves putting people literally on top of one another at times
rather than spreading them out. We are talking about people that historically
had a lot of space between them. Therefore, when geographically they are put in
very narrow places and houses are put between houses to save money, often these
social tensions can emerge.
Sustained and consistent funding for Indigenous housing
would improve the ability to provide safe home environments for young children.
The Remote Mental Health Area in Queensland
[Housing] is where it would make a huge difference to the safety
of young children. They are all in one room and there are 15 adults and most of
them come in the middle of the night drunk. Just having more rooms would make a
huge difference for safety.
Many witnesses made clear to the Committee that child
safety and protection were critical elements in the prevention of young
children sniffing. Evidence suggested that some young people begin to sniff
petrol as a result of past trauma, violence and abuse. Professor
I remember, when I was doing some work in Bourke a few years
ago, the kids on the street late at night saying that they did not go home
until the early hours of the morning because of the drinking that was happening
at home. We have instances of young women who have shown very adaptive
protective behaviour by essentially locking themselves in a room for periods of
time. So I think housing is a very important ingredient.
Poor educational outcomes
Education is an integral issue in overcoming
disadvantage and preventing substance abuse including petrol sniffing. The low
attendance of Indigenous children at school means that they have poor literacy
and numeracy skills, poor retention rates and little prospect of stable,
The difficulties that we see in the sort of community that I am
working in include poor language skills from lack of educational achievement.
There are issues with parenting young children within that community. School
attendance is poor.
There are a lot of young people who drop out of school early and
fail even to complete year 7. So their educational opportunities quickly
diminish. English, as you probably know, is often a second or third language.
They find that school is not attractive; it is not motivating. They drop out.
The parents find that they have limited ability to control those adolescents.
It becomes a big social dilemma for each of those communities.
Poor attendance at school also means that many
Indigenous children are left to their own devices during the day and often
become bored. Boredom is one of the major reasons given to explain why children
One of the biggest potential diversionary schemes is school, but
unfortunately, in a lot of the places that I go to, a lot of children do not
attend school. I see children and young adults, including 12- to 14-year-old
young men, who have not attended much school, have not got good literacy or
numeracy skills and do not have many opportunities for further education,
further training or employment. Often they may take up petrol sniffing as a
diversion from their own lives. Anything that can help young people do better
at school, stay at school and attend school is something that may move them
away from sniffing.
Boredom is also a problem in the wet season in Northern
Australia where children cannot participate in diversionary
programs such as visiting outstations. Professor
of the Remote Area Mental Health Services commented:
It has been suggested before, and I think it would be useful,
that we reverse the school year so that kids are at school through the wet
season and their longest break from school is in the dry season. This would
make a lot of sense.
Cultural influences include traditional customs, shared
knowledge, accepted behaviours, peer pressures and the values of a distinct
group of society. Australian Aboriginal culture is complex and extraordinarily
diverse. The system of kinship puts everybody in a specific kinship
relationship, each of which has roles and responsibilities attached to it. Kinship
governs much of everyday behaviour.
The impact of the Indigenous value of right to personal
autonomy and the unwillingness to impose one's will on another was explained as
being a key aspects of Indigenous culture and 'act as impediments for
Aboriginal people to take action'. Dr Maggie
...the socially and culturally embedded notions of individual
autonomy which are a normal part of the socialization of Aboriginal people in
Because child-rearing practices are focused around permissiveness and learning
by experience (techniques that worked extremely well in earlier years) adults
rarely interfere in the activities of children or teenagers. By the time
teenagers become young men and women, older family members have no automatic
authority over them. 'I am boss for myself', and 'it's my body, my business'
are frequently heard statements. It would be embarrassing, shameful and simply
socially unacceptable in many cases, for an individual to try to impose his or
her will or to remonstrate with others (be they sniffing, drinking to excess,
'neglecting' children, or illegally selling petrol to sniffers).
Effects of petrol sniffing
The effects of petrol sniffing are immense and the
damage is felt by not only the individual sniffer, but also the community and
society as a whole. The sniffer will suffer irreparable health problems both mentally
and physically. The family and community suffer emotionally and financially,
with the impacts including a burden on the health care system and a community
left to manage the aftermath when a sniffer commits crimes or causes damage
while under the influence of an inhalant.
These effects of petrol sniffing have been well
documented in coronial inquiries including that by Coroner Chivell in 2002 and were
also echoed by the Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA)
and Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA):
Petrol sniffing poses a range of problems for sniffers, their
families, communities and to the wider society. The societal impacts of petrol
sniffing potentially include social disruption: vandalism and violence; increased
inter-family conflict; social alienation of sniffers; social disruption;
reduced morale in communities; incarceration of sniffers and significant
personal/ community and financial impacts associated with both acute and long
term treatment of sniffing related harm...The wider
society will almost certainly experience increased demands on hospital-based
and other health resources; long-term health care for those disabled through
sniffing; and demands on the criminal justice system, arising out of sniffing
The inhalation of petrol fumes can immediately induce
euphoria, relaxation, dizziness, increased libido, aggression, hunger and
ataxia (loss of coordination of the muscles), with symptoms lasting sometimes up
to six hours. Petrol sniffers exhibit blurred speech, staggered gait and
impulsive and uninhibited behaviour. Larger doses can induce hallucinations,
delirium, unconsciousness, seizures and coma. Longer term usage can result in
death due to heart failure, pneumonia or lead poisoning. Petrol sniffers also face increased
risk of injury including burns and an increased incidence of sexually
transmissible infections and unplanned pregnancy.
The effects of petrol sniffing on physical health include:
- intoxication, auditory and visual hallucination,
irrationality, aggression, dis-inhibition, confusion, poor coordination,
headaches, poor memory, slurred speech, vomiting, headache, fits;
- psychological addiction;
- for chronic sniffers, cerebellar ataxia, grand
mal epilepsy, encephalopathy, persistent psychosis, chronic disability
including mental impairment, and low body weight;
- possible effects on unborn children caused by
sniffing during pregnancy; and
Researchers at the Menzies School of Health Research
have found that neurological damage from petrol sniffing can be present at the
very early stages of abuse, including affects on memory, attention, learning,
executive function and behavioural inhibition. These changes are associated
with social disruption, low school attendance, being involved in activities
that break both Commonwealth and Aboriginal law and a poor prognosis for
ultimate admission to hospital with severe neurological illness (petrol
Justice issues related to
petrol sniffing include increased crime rates and domestic violence, whilst
damage to community property and vandalism is commonplace as sniffers search
for petrol or break into vehicles, fuel bowsers or storage areas. The Committee
was also informed of incidents where sniffers had become destructive and broken
into stores, homes or other buildings to obtain food.
The effectiveness of laws and policing at combating
petrol sniffing is discussed in chapter 4.
Effect on communities
Substance misuse, particularly alcohol and petrol sniffing is a
major contributing factor in the breakdown of individual, family and community
relationships and wellbeing throughout Australia.
Family violence, ill health and increasing morbidity, child neglect,
imprisonment, sexual abuse, acts of violence and premature deaths can all
result from substance misuse.
Petrol sniffing impacts on Indigenous communities not
only because of the health risks posed to the individual, but also because it
is disruptive and destructive to the functioning of families and the community:
It is well documented that petrol sniffing has been disrupting
the life of remote Aboriginal communities with intoxication-related crimes;
resultant friction between families; youth suicides and other damage to
physical, mental and emotional health which is not limited to the petrol
sniffers themselves but spreads to their clan groups and the wider community.
In the Northern Territory
some communities are on the verge of complete social breakdown whilst others
could achieve greater social harmony and greater economic benefit if their
energies were not frequently diverted to the problems of petrol sniffing.
Gillick, Coordinator of NPY Women's Council
It is my observation that in the past fifteen years or thereabouts,
Mutitjulu, along with other communities in the region including Amata,
Ernabella, Docker River
and Imanpa, has become progressively more dysfunctional. At Mutitjulu, many
older leaders have died and other senior people in the community have become overwhelmed
by the escalating sniffing, cannabis use, drinking and associated behaviour of
Witnesses reported an escalation in violence associated
with petrol sniffing with this report from Mr
of the Turkey Bore Community:
Just recently – on Friday, before I packed up to come down here
– one of the petrol sniffers set fire to his own wife. He was arguing with
petrol sniffers outside, came back home, chucked the petrol on and lit his own
Communities troubled with petrol sniffers can find it
difficult to attract and retain essential resources and services including
non-Indigenous support workers. The NPY Women's Council commented:
This is particularly so as communities become more
dysfunctional. There is a circular effect; a community is in poor shape, so
no-one who is very talented or thoughtful wants to work there; the place
becomes more dysfunctional and open to corrupt or stupid management. Local
community residents most often lack the education to enable them to take on the
work themselves, are frequently open to being misled or ripped off, and so it
Impact on health costs
Health care to treat the effects of petrol sniffing tends
to be concentrated on acute hospitalisations, which often requires aerial medical
evacuation. The longer term impacts of sniffing generally call for limited
rehabilitative or residential care for the disabled.
In Alice Springs a Committee member,
Senator Adams, visited the
local health service and found 'that their emergency department had a 25 per
cent increase this year in petrol-sniffing clients.'
It has been estimated that the annual cost for
institutional care for a person who has acquired permanent damage from petrol
sniffing in Alice Springs is $160 000 per annum. It is also suggested that this figure
will be far greater if care is needed in remote locations. Given that estimated
numbers of sniffers in the Northern Territory
alone is 600, the potential economic burden from health costs is very high.
Estimating the annual cost of health care for a sniffer
with permanent disability varies considerably depending on the type and extent
of care required. In May 2006, ABC Lateline
visited St Mary's Hostel
outside of Alice Springs and spoke to a 40 year old
sniffer with Acquired Brain Injury syndrome who had begun sniffing at 15 and
was in a wheelchair at 25 years of age.
Kumanarra wants to return to his country [Mutitjulu], but there
is no-one there who can look after him. The cost of looking after Kumanarra is
so expensive at times the only option has been hotel accommodation...He stayed
here [local hotel] for two months at a cost of $160 per night. The total cost
of looking after Kumanarra is $200,000 per year.
Access Economics' cost benefit analysis report on Opal
estimated that the cost of petrol sniffing in the Opal roll out region across
Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory to the eastern parts of Western
Australia and to the north of South Australia. It found that the net cost of
the disease burden in the region was $38.1 million with health, long-term care
and rehabilitation impacts accounting for $12 million.
Impact on family and carers
Ngitji Mona Tur,
who has been an interpreter in the Pitjantjatjara and
Antikirinya/Yankunytjatjara languages for over 30 years, stated that 'petrol
sniffing affects the whole family, not just the person who is sniffing.' Mrs
Tur provided accounts of the struggle of
Anangu families and commented 'I have seen so much destruction in my
communities because of petrol sniffing. We do not want to lose our children and
family to this poison.'
The negative impact on families is significant as there
are multiple and interrelated elements in play when a family member is a
chronic sniffer. The NPY Women's Council elucidated on the impact:
It is the disabilities, the ongoing care,
the ageing parents who are becoming disabled, frail or are dying themselves and
cannot look after those kids, and the huge loss of physical and brain power
across a small population. Margaret [Vice President of NPYWC] said to me this morning, ‘Soon there
will not be any Anangu left on the AP lands.’
Evidence from many family members of sniffers suggests
that the burden on families is not only the struggle to prevent their sons,
daughters, cousins and nieces from sniffing, but also the burden of providing care
to family members who have permanent brain damage acquired through sniffing.
visit to Alice Springs in May 2006, the consequences
of petrol sniffing and the effect on carers and family was made clear:
I work primarily with the carers and I really see the stress and
strain on carers, especially ageing carers, carers that are getting older who
have enormous health problems themselves...I know of another carer who has made
the decision not to go on dialysis. She is returning to her remote community.
She has a 35-year-old daughter in a wheelchair as result of petrol sniffing.
Edwards has lived and worked in Indigenous
communities for many years and commented on the impact petrol sniffing has had
Having known many of the Pitjantjatjara people of a previous
generation as strong, proud and self-respecting, my concern arises from seeing
many of their children and grandchildren dying or reduced to human wrecks.
Incidence of petrol sniffing
The absence of statistical data and full and accurate
records make it difficult to determine the full impact of petrol sniffing.
Estimations can only be made on the number of people engaged in petrol sniffing
and its true cost to the community. DIMIA and DoHA
The exact extent of the problem of petrol sniffing in the
central desert region is hard to quantify. There is no national data available
on petrol sniffing in remote areas. At the regional level data is collected in
some communities. All the available data, whether at the broad national or
regional levels, is patchy and incomplete, and often inconsistent. The various
collections, moreover, are difficult to compare.
The South Australian Government indicated that it was
not aware of any data on deaths attributed to petrol sniffing that are
regularly collected. The Government funds the Nganampa Health Council to
undertake a survey of prevalence of petrol sniffing in the APY Lands. Twelve
health surveys have been undertaken since 1984 and are the most reliable
information source concerning the prevalence of petrol sniffing in South
Access Economics estimated that across the roll out
region there were 612 sniffers in 2005 of whom the majority were male. The
number of chronic and occasional sniffers were about the same.
Some estimates were provided by witnesses including the
Alice Springs Council which indicated that petrol sniffing has been linked to
as many as 60 Indigenous deaths in the Northern Territory in the past
seven years with about 120 people in the Central Australian region suffer
permanent brain damage. Other
witnesses noted the estimate reported by Coroner Greg Cavanagh in his 2005 coronial
inquiry report that there are an estimated 600 petrol sniffers across the Central
Desert region of the Northern
and DIMIA concluded that 'in the absence of consistent accurate statistics,
this is the best estimate for the region that is currently available'.
The lack of research and consistency of data collection
on petrol sniffing in Indigenous communities creates much frustration. The true
extent of petrol sniffing is not known and evaluation of programs is difficult.
Brady, having researched Indigenous issues
for many years, provided a historical perspective:
By the end of the eighties there were increasing pleas for help
from the grassroots, together with the spread of sniffing to new areas, but
there were still no dedicated staffers in any departments with knowledge of and
responsibility for sniffing. There was no national cohesion, no national data
collection or evidence base. There was no resource collection to distribute to
communities on request.
Witnesses commented that a lack of national data
collection continues to remain as much a problem today as it was in the
eighties. Mr Romlie
Mokak, Chief Executive Officer of the
Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association (AIDA), commented that from his
experience 'there was a need for comprehensive data monitoring and surveillance
systems and uniformity of collection across jurisdictions. They are the sorts
of things that I think would be very useful for the committee to consider.'
Associate Professor Ted
University, commented on the 1998 Northern
Territory coronial inquiry into the death of a
14-year-old boy from petrol sniffing:
A key recommendation made by Coroner Donald was that any death
connected to petrol or another inhalant be reflected in the death certificate
and autopsy report. However, it appears the opinion of workers in the field is
that such reporting is not being carried out in a consistent manner throughout
the country. Consequently, there is no reliable statistical data on inhalant
The South Australian Government also commented on the
difficulty in establishing the number of deaths due to petrol sniffing and the
use of death certificates. It noted that the condition directly leading to
death described on the relevant death certificate may not describe any
involvement with petrol sniffing 'as this is up to the discretion of the
doctor'. There is scope for secondary and supplementary 'antecedent causes' to
be listed as factors consequential to the direct cause of death on the
certificate 'but again this is at the doctor's discretion'.
The absence of nationally consistent reporting removes
the opportunity of evaluation, information sharing and the identification of
trends in Indigenous populations around Australia.
Chalmers from the Australian
College of Rural and Remote
The story of petrol sniffing, as you are aware, is characterised
in Australia by
a series of inquiries and reports at national, state and local levels. Some
interventions have been well reported, but many have not been well reported and
have not been well evaluated, so the messages and the lessons learnt are lost...a
well-constructed and tested data collection across jurisdictions for monitoring
is needed...I would strongly recommend that any opportunity to encourage
collaboration on that sort of data collection be taken up so that we know what
is happening and we can detect changes in patterns or early signs of new
The significant limitations of data collections in
relation to Indigenous people have been recognised by organisations reporting
on a range of health and welfare indictors. The Steering Committee for the
Review of Government Service Provision reports on key indicators of Indigenous
disadvantage. The report involves an Indicators Framework, and in order to
measure progress against these benchmarks, accurate data collection is
essential. The report indicates priority areas for data improvement.
In its 2005 report, the Steering Committee noted that
the data was limited because of variability of the identification of people as
being of Indigenous origin, both across data collections and over time. The
Steering Committee also noted that there is limited data on Indigenous drug use
and indicated that a priority area was more robust data by jurisdictional and
geographic areas on alcohol and tobacco consumption and drug and other
substance use. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) is
'currently undertaking work to evaluate the different existing data sources
that can provide information on substance use among Indigenous people to assess
where the gaps are'.
In 2005, the AIHW produced its second report against
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health performance indicators which
included information on determinants of health – risk markers (such as smoking
prevalence, alcohol consumption) and outcomes for people (such as hospitalisation
ratios, mortality ratios). The AIHW stated that a common problem with the data was
the poor quality of information particularly in identification of Indigenous
people in birth and death registrations, primary health care service records
and hospital records. AIHW noted that the Australian Health Ministers' Advisory
Council (AHMAC), through its Standing
Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and the National
Advisory Group on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Information
and Data, 'is actively supporting data development work to improve the quality
of key health performance indicators'.
Over the past 20 years, much research and discussion
has focussed on the reasons why people sniff and the impact of petrol sniffing
on both the individual and communities. The evidence received by the Committee
echoed the research already undertaken and again pointed to the multiple causes
of petrol sniffing including hunger and poverty, boredom and lack of meaningful
employment opportunities. Petrol sniffing not only effects individuals physically
as it causes aggression, delirium and psychosis but also causes disruption to
family and community life. Some communities have become so dysfunctional that
they have difficulty retaining support workers.
Concern was expressed that if the many causes of petrol
sniffing are considered together, the problem may seem insurmountable. The
Committee recognises that the underlying causes of poverty, disadvantage and
despair urgently need to be addressed but smaller scale interventions can make
a real and substantial difference.
The extent of petrol sniffing and its impact on the
health of users is difficult to ascertain. The datasets are limited with identification
of Indigenous people a major problem in key health and welfare data sets. The
inclusion of information on inhalant abuse on death certificates and autopsy
reports as recommended by the Northern Territory coroner in 1998 could provide
a significant source of information on inhalant-related deaths but it appears
that this recommendation has not be taken up in a consistent manner.
The Committee considers that without accurate data,
there can only be an estimation of the incidence of petrol sniffing and limited
evaluation of the impact of programs to stop petrol sniffing and to address the
underlying causes of substance abuse such as poverty.
That the Australian Health Ministers' Advisory Council
through the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health
and the National Advisory Group on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health
Information and Data, work to improve data
collection on substance abuse including petrol, by Indigenous people as a
matter of priority
That State and Territory Registrars of Births, Deaths
and Marriages require that, where abuse of petrol or other inhalant is a
contributing factor to a death, the inclusion of inhalant abuse and the type of
inhalant used be recorded on death certificates as recommended by the Northern
Territory Coroner in 1998.
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