Child workers at risk in fields

May. 24, 2014 @ 10:24 AM

This editorial appeared in the News and Record, Greensboro

Many North Carolina residents recall long, hot summer days working in tobacco fields as youngsters. Few remember the experience as easy or pleasant.

Children still work in North Carolina tobacco fields -- and they might be risking their health, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based international organization that looks for human rights abuses.

Unlike in other workplaces, children as young as 12 can work long hours as farm laborers when school is out. On tobacco farms, that puts them at risk for Green Tobacco Sickness. The National Institutes of Health reported on this sickness in children and adolescents in 2005.

Studies show the exposure can produce a much greater nicotine effect than smoking — and it's particularly strong in children. Whether there are long-term health risks is uncertain.

This isn't regulated like exposure to pesticides, N.C. Department of Agriculture spokesman Brian Long said. But there are safe practices that can limit risk, including use of gloves and protective clothing. The Agriculture Department, N.C. Department of Labor and other organizations provide information to farmers.

A Department of Labor video notes that nicotine absorption is more likely in wet conditions, even morning dew. It's safer to work when plants are dry. Advice for recovering from the sickness includes hydrating and taking a day or two off -- hardly practical for low-wage workers who don't get paid sick leave. The video doesn't say anything about child workers.

Human Rights Watch calls for strong action. If state and federal governments won't set stricter rules, tobacco companies should step up, the report's co-author, Margaret Wurth, said. "Tobacco companies shouldn't benefit from hazardous child labor. They have a responsibility to adopt clear, comprehensive policies that get children out of dangerous work on tobacco farms, and make sure the farms follow the rules."

Generations of North Carolinians survived long days in the tobacco fields, but was the work really good for them? More study might answer that question. To be safe, growers should try to minimize nicotine exposure for their workers today.