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Tale of hardship and health hazards as children harvest tobacco in the US

By Robert Moore: Washington Correspondent

In the US, anyone over the age of 12 can legally pick tobacco. Credit: Fusion Media Network, LLC

In the pre-summer heat of the American South, the tobacco fields are now being planted.

And remarkable as it may sound, across this region of the United States, teenagers are getting ready for the humid, toxic, nicotine-saturated, pesticide-intensive work that awaits.

Human Rights Watch is warning that this is a health disaster in slow motion. Why on earth does the US Government turn a blind eye to children - overwhelmingly poor and Hispanic - working in the tobacco fields, where nicotine is easily absorbed through the skin?

Why does America make it illegal for children to smoke, but say it's acceptable for anyone over the age of 12 to pick tobacco, where there are multiple health risks?

Margaret Wurth of Human Rights Watch is the author of the report that highlights the hazards. She says that many American children - hundreds certainly, maybe thousands - are suffering acute nicotine poisoning.

The kids, of course, are not forced to do this work. They volunteer and they are paid just over $7 (£4.17) an hour - the minimum wage. But in a very real sense, they have little choice.

Margaret Wurth of Human Rights Watch said picking tobacco was 'a whole environment of risk'. Credit: ITV News

These Hispanic teenagers come from desperately poor families, and working in the tobacco fields is the only way to put food on the table and to afford school supplies.

I spoke to Luiz and Mario, two 14-year old boys who are getting ready to work in the fields. They know the risks: conditions so hot and humid they can barely breathe, the nicotine entering their bodies, rashes, respiratory problems.

But still they do it. They need the money.

This 14-year-old boy is getting ready to work in the tobacco fields this summer. Credit: ITV News

And, they add, there is no safety equipment and no training offered on how to minimise the dangers. They even have to buy their own gloves.

According to Human Rights Watch, many countries that harvest tobacco - like Brazil, India and Malawi - ban anyone under 18 from working with the crop.

But in the USA, if you're over 12 years of age, it's perfectly legal.

Lee Wicker, spokesman for the North Carolina Growers Association. Credit: ITV News

We put the Human Rights Watch allegations to a spokesman for the North Carolina Growers Association. He denied the problem even exists.

But Luiz and Mario tell a different story. A tale of hardship and health hazards as they pick tobacco throughout the summer holidays.

A North Carolina Growers Association spokesman said he doesn't believe there are children working in the tobacco fields. Credit: Human Rights Watch

Many American children are preparing for the wholesome outdoors of summer camps. But the poorest and most economically vulnerable are bracing themselves for the hazards and illness that comes with working in the tobacco fields.

And all of this is occurring in a country that is quick to lecture others on human rights and child labour.