In tobacco fields, laboring teens face grave dangers

Exposure to nicotine and toxins plagues young people working on farms, says new HRW report

Many teenagers who work long hours on tobacco farms in the United States are getting sick, reporting symptoms like vomiting, dizziness and a loss of appetite, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Wednesday.

The New York–based group called on the U.S. government and tobacco companies to bar children under 18 from working in direct contact with tobacco.

“These are kids who are too young to legally walk into a store and buy a pack of cigarettes,” said Margaret Wurth, a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and a co-author of the report. “Yet they are working long hours tending the tobacco that goes into the cigarettes. It’s not right, and it has to change.”

In July the group interviewed 26 children, ages 16 and 17, working on tobacco farms in North Carolina, a major tobacco-growing state, along with Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Nearly all the teenagers reported feeling sick while working in tobacco fields or after going home.

“I get headaches and … my stomach hurts,” said a 16-year-old worker identified as Elena G., who has worked on tobacco farms every summer since she was 12. “And like, I feel nauseous … I just feel like my stomach is like rumbling around. I feel like I’m gonna throw up.”

Headaches, nausea and dizziness are symptoms of green tobacco sickness, or GTS, a kind of nicotine poisoning that can result from handling tobacco plants, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Nicotine can be absorbed through the skin and make people ill. The CDC says the risk rises when tobacco is wet — from rain, dew or sweat, for example.

“Additionally, children and adolescents may be … more likely to suffer from GTS and may suffer more serious health effects than adults,” according to a bulletin by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency under the Department of Labor.

GTS symptoms usually end 24 hours after workers stop handling tobacco leaves, the bulletin said, adding that there are no in-depth studies analyzing long-term effects.

Wurth said the risks are real for children working in tobacco farming, who she believed could number in the thousands.

“We may not know the long-term effects of absorbing nicotine through the skin,” she said. “But we know it's enough that it makes children sick in the short term.”

‘Important step forward’

The teenagers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported facing other hazards in their jobs. Almost all said they worked 11 or 12 hours a day in intense heat, often with little access to toilets and no place to wash their hands. Many described being exposed to pesticides, then suddenly feeling their throats itching and eyes burning. Most said they never received training to protect themselves.

“They don’t even warn us that it is dangerous — nothing,” said a 16-year-old farmworker named Susana. “We are just working, and we cover ourselves well because the smell is very strong and we get sick with the smell of that spray.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Department of Labor, tobacco grower associations and tobacco companies to do more to protect children under 18 from dangers like these.

The rights group said it has already seen some progress. Last year, after it published a different report, on children ages 7 to 17 in tobacco farming, the two largest tobacco companies in the U.S. — Altria Group and Reynolds American —announced that they would bar growers in their supply chain from hiring children under 16. The move followed similar statements by two tobacco grower associations, according to Human Rights Watch.

“This is an important step forward, but they left out 16- and 17-year-old kids,” Worth said. “A 16-year-old isn’t the same as an adult. These are still children … Their bodies and brains are still developing.”

Jeffrey Caldwell, a spokesman for Altria Group, responded to the new report, telling Al Jazeera that the company plans to continue allowing children 16 or older to work on farms that supply its tobacco, as long as the children meet certain conditions, such as receiving consent from a legal guardian. All workers must go through training, covering issues such as the prevention of GTS, heat stress and exposure to pesticides, he added.

“We may not agree with Human Rights Watch on all of the remedies they’re proposing —[raising the minimum age to 18] being one of them,” he said. “But we are remaining in dialogue with them and other stakeholders to address any concerns that are raised.”

He also pointed out that in some cases, Altria goes beyond federal and state requirements to prevent children under 16 from working on the thousands of farms contracted with the company.

‘We may not know the long-term effects of absorbing nicotine through the skin. But we know it's enough that it makes children sick in the short term.’

Margaret Wurth

children’s rights researcher, Human Rights Watch

Under U.S. law, children age 14 or 15 may work outside school hours in agricultural jobs that are not considered hazardous, and children 16 or older may work in any farm job at any time. Children of any age may work in any job on a farm owned or operated by their parents.

In response to this week’s Human Rights Watch report, the Department of Labor released a statement saying, “We appreciate that we had an opportunity to hear from the report’s authors about their findings and how we can continue to work together to ensure that young workers in agriculture are only employed and working within the rules.”

Many of the children who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that they would rather not work in tobacco farming but that they had to continue to support their families. Elena G., for example, said she used her minimum-wage earnings to help her mother buy gas, food, school supplies and clothes.

“These are families that are living in poverty, and they are relying on income from their children,” Wurth said, adding that some children and their parents interviewed by Human Rights Watch were unauthorized immigrants, making them more even vulnerable and limiting their options.

“We can’t keep failing them,” she said. “Tobacco companies and the U.S. government have responsibilities to transition kids out of tobacco and find them appropriate, alternative opportunities.”

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