Written by: Tiffany Baker, Program Clerk
There are a number of factors that can contribute to a farmworker’s health, aside from pesticide exposure. These factors can include the very crops that they are tending too, one being tobacco. While we know that smoking tobacco can have serious health effects, there is less known about the effects of handling the tobacco plants. Tobacco can cause an illness known as Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS). GTS occurs when Farmworkers become poisoned by nicotine, a substance found in the plant.
Farmworkers can absorb nicotine through the skin by coming into contact with wet tobacco plants. This could include rain water, due, and sweat. Workers who are new to handling have a higher risk of GTS because they may have a lower tolerance for nicotine exposure and they may not know the how to protect themselves against it. Children and teens especially are very venerable to GTS. Their developing bodies are more sensitive to chemical exposure which could lead to more serious health effects than what is experienced by adults.
The symptoms of GTS are similar to those of pesticides exposure or heat exhaustion. This includes vomiting, nausea, dehydration, dizziness, headaches and cramps. Because of the similarities in symptoms to other illnesses, GTS is sometimes misdiagnosed. It can also lead to heat related illness due to elevated body temperature.
Farmworkers can protect themselves from GTS by following a few simple practices each day:
Wearing gloves and water resistant clothing (long sleeve shirt and long pants) can greatly aid in limiting GTS exposure. Also Employers should provide training and information to their workers about nicotine hazards, GTS prevention and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) before allowing workers to handle tobacco.