Dear Mr. President,
We write to you as organizations representing millions of Americans, including teachers, healthcare professionals, workers, farmworkers, and advocates concerned about the safety, education, and welfare of children. We are alarmed at recent reports that children are risking acute nicotine poisoning and other health and safety hazards in US tobacco fields, and would like to urge your administration to take immediate action to protect these children.
A study released in May by Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with 141 child tobacco workers in the four largest tobacco-producing states (North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee), found that nearly three-quarters of the child tobacco workers they interviewed had experienced the sudden onset of serious symptoms—including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, skin rashes, and irritation to their eyes and mouths —while working in fields of tobacco plants and in curing barns. Many of these symptoms are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.
Human Rights Watch found child tobacco workers, ages 11 and 12, working 10-12 hours per day or more. These children described working in extreme heat, using sharp tools and heavy machinery, and working at heights of more than one story in curing barns. More than half of the children interviewed reported being exposed to toxic pesticides. Public health experts have noted that several pesticides commonly used during tobacco farming are known neurotoxins, which can cause cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, and reproductive health problems.
The health risks to children working in tobacco cultivation are greater than those of adults. Children’s smaller body size increases the dosage of chemicals (nicotine and pesticides) absorbed and their developing nervous and reproductive systems leave them more likely to develop negative health outcomes in later life. They also lack the experience and judgment of adults; inexperience among workers has led to a higher incidence of acute nicotine poisoning and heat-related deaths.
Current US law allows children working in agriculture, including tobacco, to work at far younger ages, for far longer hours, and under more hazardous conditions than all other working children. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, there is no minimum age for a child to begin working on a small farm with parental permission. At age 12, a child can work for any number of hours outside of school on a farm of any size with parental permission, and at age 14, a child can work on any farm without parental permission. At 16, children working in agriculture can work in jobs deemed to be particularly hazardous. These standards leave child farmworkers, and especially those working in tobacco, at unacceptable risk.
Recent editorials in the Washington Post (May 18) and New York Times (May 17) both called on your administration to do more to address these risks to children. Eighteen members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce have called for hearings, and 17 members of the Senate have written directly to top tobacco companies to urge them to adopt and implement stronger child labor policies.
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