by Elizabeth Grossman

Next month will mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth. Given the last two centuries’ stratospheric advances in technology and the past century’s progress in human rights policy, one would think that child labor, dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, and the export of hazardous industrial refuse to poor countries and communities would be a thing of the past. But as several reports released last month show, Dickensian working and living conditions are still very much with us. Children continue to be engaged in hazardous manual labor instead of attending school. They continue to be exposed to levels of toxics that hamper their ability to learn. Particularly troubling is the fact that these problems have long been documented and persist despite policies – in national regulations, international agreements, and in voluntary business codes of conduct – aimed at their prevention.

Gold mining in Mali
A Human Rights Watch report released in December details the work of children in gold mines in Mali – children as young as six digging and climbing mine shafts, working underground, carrying heavy loads of rock, crushing ore, and using the potent neurotoxicant mercury to separate gold from surrounding rock. Even younger children are also being exposed to mercury as they accompany their mothers who are engaged in this work. According to the report, an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 children work in Mali’s small-scale artisanal gold mining operations – despite the fact that Mali has now outlawed hazardous child labor in gold mines. Many of these children work alongside their parents, but some are victims of labor trafficking. Some of the gold from these artisanal mines in Mali has been traced to Switzerland and Dubai.

The Human Rights Watch report points out that labor conditions of these small-scale operations are far more difficult to police than those of big companies, and that funding to enforce international child labor prevention programs is far from sufficient. It notes that among the challenges of eradicating this child labor is the fact that in situations like the one in Mali, boycotts can be counterproductive if they result in a local economic downturn that may prompt families to put more children to work in the mines as they pursue additional income. Recommendations from Human Rights Watch include increasing access to free education (with free school meals) in mining areas, reducing use of mercury in artisanal mines, improving overall mining practices, and renewing the International Labor Organization’s “Minors Out of Mining” campaign.

Cotton production in Burkina Faso
An investigation by Bloomberg News of the cotton industry in Burkina Faso (Mali’s neighbor to the south) reported children picking cotton that is certified as organic and fair trade – and that ends up in Victoria’s Secret underwear. Bloomberg’s report describes the daily life of a 12-year-old girl who plants and harvests cotton by hand. According to Bloomberg, whose reporters spent six weeks in West Africa, subsistence farmers there say “they can’t grow ethically sourced cotton without forcing children into their fields.” The article explains that the US State Department, which regularly monitors child labor worldwide, has never specifically examined Burkina Faso’s organic and fair-trade cotton crop. Recent State Department data, however, do show that cotton and gold are produced with child or forced labor in more countries than any other global commodity.

The Swiss organization Helvetas, which has been promoting organic cotton production in Burkina Faso since 2004, and helping the national cotton producers union there (UNPCB) train farmers in organic cotton production, has responded to the Bloomberg report by launching an investigation of its account of abusive child labor conditions. An earlier (2008) study of child labor commissioned by Helvetas “identified certain risks particularly in the case of the ‘enfants confiés’” (foster children who are often put to work as child laborers) but otherwise “clearly showed that there is no systematic misuse of child labor in organic farms.” Last week, Fairtrade International responded to the Bloomberg story, saying that they “found substantial contradictions in the facts presented in the article based on the information we have obtained from our field assessment.” The organization reports that it traveled to Burkina Faso and interviewed the people identified in the article, and found (after seeing a birth certificate and corroborating school records) that the “girl” featured in the Bloomberg story was actually older than 17, and was engaged in growing locally consumed vegetables, not cotton.

While the substantial differences in the two accounts are troubling, Fairtrade International highlights one point of agreement with Bloomberg: “More work is needed to ensure that children in the cotton producing communities of Burkina Faso and elsewhere enjoy their rights to protection and increased well being.” But they also caution that “No person or product certification system can provide a 100% guarantee that a product is free of child labor. What Fairtrade guarantees is that if we find breaches to our child labor requirements, we take immediate action to protect children.”

Lead poisoning in Mexico
Much closer to home, Mexican children are suffering from lead poisoning quite likely as a result of contamination from battery recycling operations, the New York Times reported on December 8th. Many of the batteries in these recycling plants come from the U.S., traffic that has accelerated recently as increasingly stringent U.S environmental standards have increased domestic recycling costs. These standards have not, however, been accompanied by regulations that would curtail the export of hazardous waste destined for recycling – or curb hazardous recycling practices at export destinations. Current US regulations allow batteries destined for recycling – and electronic waste (computers, cell phones, TVs, etc.) – to be exported even if they contain hazardous substances, such as lead.

Some local water systems near battery recycling operations in Mexico are contaminated by lead. Some of these facilities have contaminated soil at an elementary school and a various locations where children play. Lead dust can also come home on workers’ clothes and shoes. Like mercury, lead is toxic to the nervous system and over time can also cause anemia and problems in the muscular and reproductive systems. Children’s health experts now consider no level of lead exposure safe for children. Environmental lead poisoning resulting from industrial waste – including batteries – is not a new problem in Mexico. And this is not the first time hazardous lead battery waste from the US has been implicated such contamination. Among the dozens of hazardous waste sites that have been documented along the US-Mexico border, perhaps the best-known is the Metales y Derivados site, near Tijuana where some 42,000 tons of waste from a former lead smelter and battery-recycling operation had been accumulating since the 1980s, posing serious health risks to residents of the adjacent community. In 2004 the US and Mexican governments began a joint clean-up effort, and in 2009, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Mexican government declared the site clean.

Some U.S recyclers are now operating their own plants in Mexico, The New York Times reports. And while these plants may voluntarily comply with US EPA standards, they are not subject to the kind of oversight they would receive from EPA or other regulators in the US.

These situations continue because someone in the supply chain claims they cannot afford to do business otherwise. Unfortunately, the challenges of changing this equation are, in this time of tight budgets and an anti-regulatory political climate, as difficult as ever. Millions of dollars are now being poured into a political campaign to support a presidential candidate who has called current child labor laws “truly stupid.” But what would happen if this money were instead spent to enable children to attend school and grow up without risk of lead and mercury poisoning?

i-93ffb94e8384c1e7db4d7ecfb8636819-EG&cover2.jpgElizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.