“My head started hurting really bad, and I started seeing like all black.” It was mid-afternoon on a scorching summer day in eastern North Carolina when “Jimena,” a 14-year-old farmworker, walked into a tobacco field where she had been sent to work. No one told her that the field had been sprayed with pesticides just hours earlier. “I got really dizzy,” she said, “and I started throwing up.” She told me she was sick for two weeks.
Last summer, while I was investigating child labor on tobacco farms in the United States, I met dozens of children with similar stories. Of the 141 children my colleagues and I interviewed, half reported seeing tractors spraying pesticides in fields where they worked or in nearby fields. The kids said they could smell and feel the chemical spray as it drifted toward them. Many of them said they got sick afterward, with searing headaches, vomiting, shortness of breath, and skin rashes. What they didn’t know was that pesticide exposure can have serious long-term health effects, especially for kids.
US government action to protect child farmworkers is long overdue. But for the first time in 20 years, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is planning to update the regulations designed to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure.
The proposed changes include many important protections—common sense measures such as requiring pesticide safety training for workers every year, rather than once every five years. And for the first time, the EPA has proposed setting a minimum age for two of the tasks that carry the highest risk of exposure to pesticides: applying them and “early entry work” in fields where pesticides have been sprayed and entry is restricted.
The problem? The EPA proposed setting the minimum age at just 16. If these regulations are adopted, children who are too young to legally buy alcohol or cigarettes will legally be able to spray highly toxic chemicals on US farms.
The difference between 16 and 18 really matters here.
Children’s bodies and brains continue to grow and develop during the teen years. Children are more susceptible than adults to the long-term and chronic health effects of pesticide exposure— including respiratory problems, cancer, depression, problems with learning and cognition, and reproductive health issues.
Research has shown that teens feel less vulnerable to harm, and don’t take the same safety precautions as adults, even when they have received the same training. When I was 16, I got the worst sunburn of my life because I refused to heed my parents’ warnings that I needed to wear sunscreen. The kids I interviewed last summer are much smarter and more responsible than I was at 16, but they’re still kids. They may not have the maturity to follow pesticide safety instructions and take all the necessary steps to protect themselves.
Weak labor laws allow child farmworkers to work from younger ages, for longer hours, and in more hazardous conditions than children working in all other sectors. But inadequate child labor laws shouldn’t keep the EPA from adopting strong protections for child farmworkers when it comes to pesticide exposure.
This summer, Jimena will turn 16. So will “Eli,” another farmworker from North Carolina who recently told me he can’t yet grow a beard. At 14, Eli had to rush his mother to the hospital when she came home from work with pesticide poisoning. Eli said he often saw tractors spraying chemicals near tobacco fields where he worked. “You could really smell it—it was strong,” he said. “It made you dizzy. It made you sick in the stomach.”
These kids—and dozens of others I interviewed—already have to navigate frightening and harmful exposure to pesticides at work. They shouldn’t be spraying the toxic chemicals as well.
This is the last week for the public to comment on the proposed changes to the Worker Protection Standard. The EPA then has the opportunity to make changes to the proposed rule before it goes into effect. Children under 18 should not be spraying pesticides on farms in the US. The EPA should take swift action to protect child farmworkers and keep 16 sweet.