Despite strict laws to protect young people from using tobacco products, children as young as 7 harvest the crop and often get nicotine poisoning in the process.
US Child Workers Sickened from Tobacco Leaves
In 2005, Alice Arcury-Quandt got a paid summer internship at the Wake Forest University medical center where her father, Thomas Arcury, is director of the Center for Worker Health. Sixteen at the time, Alice and her father went to the North Carolina Department of Labor together so he could give his written permission for her to work, as required by law.
But to work in agriculture, an industry whose accident and injury rates are as high as in any other field except mining, Alice would not have needed her father’s permission. Federal law lets farms employ children as young as 13, even for hazardous tasks involving sharp knives and heavy equipment, without permission. Even children 12 and younger can pick crops outside of school hours with their parents’ consent.
Agriculture, which has dodged several rounds of major federal labor regulations, may be the last holdout of child labor in the United States. Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international human rights monitor, began documenting the problem in 2002. As the organization explored the issue, researchers stumbled on an especially troubling group of child workers. These workers, some as young as 7, were harvesting a poisonous crop whose toxin can enter the body through the skin.
The crop was tobacco.
“Nicotine is a naturally occurring alkaloid, which is a poison,” said Arcury, who has done extensive fieldwork on farmworker health, some of which is cited in a new HRW report on dangers faced by child tobacco workers. “It’s not a good idea to expose children to nicotine, and we have laws to prevent that when it comes to buying tobacco.”
The report concluded that there is no amount of training or safety gear that would make the work safe.
“We have gone to great lengths in the United States to protect kids from the dangers of nicotine. We don’t let kids under 18 walk into a store and buy a pack of cigarettes because we recognize what that means for them, but antiquated labor laws and weak protections are letting 12 year olds, and sometimes even younger kids, be exposed to nicotine while they legally work on tobacco farms here in the United States,” Margaret Wurth, one of the report's authors, told Healthline.
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