I was in North Carolina investigating hazardous child labor on tobacco farms in the United States, where under federal labor law, it's legal to hire 12-year-olds to work on tobacco farms.
I asked Elena how she felt while she worked in tobacco, and she said, "Sometimes I felt like I needed to throw up. I felt like I was going to faint. I would stop and just hold myself up with the tobacco plant."
This past July -- more than two years later -- I went back to North Carolina and interviewed Elena again. She was taller and more confident. She had gotten her braces removed, and finished two years of high school. But she was still spending her summers working in the tobacco fields. "I don't feel any different in the fields than when I was 12," she told me. "I get headaches and my stomach hurts. And I feel nauseous. I just feel like my stomach is like rumbling around. I feel like I'm going to throw up."
The symptoms she described -- headaches, nausea, dizziness -- are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, or "Green Tobacco Sickness," which happens when workers absorb nicotine through the skin while handling tobacco.
The long-term effects of absorbing nicotine through the skin are uncertain, but research
on smoking suggests exposure to nicotine during adolescence can be linked to mood disorders, and problems with memory, learning, impulse control, and attention later in life. Pesticide exposure has been associated with reproductive health problems, cancer, neurological problems, and other issues.
Even though Elena is 16 now, she says still gets sick in the tobacco fields. And even though she looks like a young woman, she is still a child under international law.
Each year, an unknown number of children work long hours as hired workers on U.S. tobacco farms, exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, extreme heat, and other dangers. My colleagues and I interviewed 141 children ages 7 to 17 for a report
last year documenting hazardous child labor in tobacco farming. We urged the U.S. government and the world's largest tobacco companies to ban anyone under 18 from hazardous work in the crop.
The U.S. government and Congress haven't changed the law or regulations to protect child tobacco workers. But last year, two of the largest U.S.-based tobacco companies banned
children under 16 from working on farms in their supply chains. This was an important step forward, but they left out 16- and 17-year-olds.
Other companies that buy tobacco from the United States ban children under 18 from the most dangerous tasks in tobacco farming, but some have loopholes that allow 16- and 17-year-olds to do hazardous work in certain circumstances. None of the companies have policies sufficient to protect all children from danger on tobacco farms.
We went back to North Carolina during the tobacco season this year to find out what was happening to the teenagers excluded from protection. Almost all of the teenagers we interviewed for a new report
described the same symptoms Elena did: nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. Many also described being exposed to pesticides while they worked, and said they felt immediately ill after working near spraying.
Sixteen-year-olds are not the same as adults. Most of us probably intuitively know it's true, remembering what we were like at 16. But research on the teen brain
has shown that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain used for problem-solving and controlling impulses, continues developing throughout the teenage years and into the early 20s. The prefrontal cortex is particularly susceptible to the effects of stimulants like nicotine.
Most of the children I interviewed had no idea that the work they were doing could have long-term consequences for their health. No one had ever trained them on the hazards of tobacco farming and how to protect themselves.
Even with better training, research suggests that the most mature 16- and 17-year-old children may not be well-equipped to navigate dangerous situations -- like pesticides being sprayed in the field next to them -- when adults are in charge. Studies have shown teens feel less vulnerable to harm and do not always take the same safety precautions as adults, even when they have received the same training.
Despite the evidence, some companies appear to believe that 16-year-olds should be allowed to work in tobacco fields. Teenagers should have access to safe jobs where they can develop work ethic and skills and add to their family's income. But not on tobacco farms, where they'll be exposed to toxins that could have lasting consequences on their health.
Tobacco farms are no place for children. Even though 16- and 17-year-olds may look fully grown, they are not adults. And they deserve protection.