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Originally published May 28 2014

Exposed: Child workers on pesticide-laden U.S. tobacco plantations getting poisoned by nicotine

by Ethan A. Huff, staff writer

(NaturalNews) For many children living in agricultural regions of the U.S., working in the fields after school or during the summer is a great way to learn the value of hard work, while earning some extra spending money. However, a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has uncovered a dirty little secret of the tobacco industry, which works some children up to 12 hours a day and exposes them to unsafe levels of nicotine.

Entitled Tobacco's Hidden Children, the report highlights the working conditions of many children in the top four tobacco states in the country: North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Researchers found that many children are working far too many hours in extreme weather conditions and that many are suffering from health symptoms that point to acute nicotine poisoning, as nicotine is easily absorbed through the skin.

"Children reported vomiting, nausea, headaches and dizziness while working on tobacco farms, all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning," explains the report. "Many also said they worked long hours without overtime pay, often in extreme heat without shade or sufficient breaks, and wore no, or inadequate, protective gear."

One such child is 15-year-old Eddie Ramirez from Snow Hill, North Carolina. According to NPR, the Honduran immigrant works in the tobacco fields near the mobile home where he and his mother live, sometimes laboring for 12 hours in direct sunlight. This situation might be tolerable if it weren't for the unusual symptoms that he suffers as a result of constantly touching the sticky tobacco leaves, which point to dermal absorption of the chemical.

"It just sticks to my hand," he told NPR, referring to the sticky fluid that naturally discharges from the tobacco leaves. "It's really sticky, you know, and really yellow," he added, noting that the substance is very difficult to remove.

Many child laborers get nicotine poisoning from picking tobacco, explains report

While walking the rows of plants, Eddie also says he sometimes feels like he is suffocating and that breathing is much more difficult. As a result, he often feels nauseated and lightheaded while working, two symptoms commonly associated with nicotine poisoning.

"We found that the overwhelming majority of kids we interviewed got sick while they were working in tobacco fields with nausea, headaches, dizziness [and] lightheadedness," stated HRW researcher Margaret Wurth, as quoted by NPR. Wurth and her colleagues interviewed 140 children between 2012 and 2013.

"Many of the symptoms they reported are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, which happens when workers absorb nicotine through their skin."

Conventional tobacco plants routinely doused in dangerous pesticides

Besides nicotine, many conventional tobacco plants are also sprayed with chemical pesticides linked to causing shortness of breath, itchy skin, burning eyes and various other symptoms. These same pesticides can also cause long-term neurological damage, especially when still-developing children are exposed to them on a regular basis.

"[Children] often described being able to smell or feel the chemical spray as it drifted over them, and reported burning eyes, burning noses, itchy skin, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, shortness of breath, redness and swelling of their mouths, and headache after coming into contact with pesticides," explains the report.

HRW is calling for a full ban on child laborers in tobacco fields, citing unnecessary risks and inadequate working conditions. Cultivating organic crops that contain no nicotine or pesticides is one thing, but handling chemical-laden tobacco crops that could cause permanent health damage is another.

You can access the full HRW report on child laborers in tobacco fields here:

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