WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Green tobacco sickness, characterized by headache, nausea, vomiting and dizziness, may be increasing as family tobacco farms are consolidated into large commercial operations and work is done by migrant or seasonal farm workers, according to a Wake Forest University School of Medicine epidemiologist.
Writing in the current American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Sara A. Quandt, Ph.D., said that 41 percent of tobacco farm workers reported having green tobacco sickness at least once during the summer. Most are migrant Hispanic farm workers.
Quandt, associate professor of public health sciences (epidemiology), and four colleagues reported that the illness typically occurs after exposure to wet tobacco leaves in the morning while plants are still covered with dew, or after a rain. The disease is attributed to acute nicotine poisoning caused by contact with nicotine on the plants, which is rapidly absorbed through the skin.
"This is the first survey research to document green tobacco sickness as an occupational health risk among seasonal and migrant farm workers," Quandt reported.
While green tobacco sickness was first described in the medical literature in 1970, it rarely came to medical attention, perhaps because it was less likely to occur on small family tobacco farms, where exposure to wet tobacco leaves was limited.
"Instead of family groups with a few workers doing a relatively small amount of tobacco work, there are now hired, low-paid, usually minority workers working in tobacco almost exclusively for 8-12 weeks each year," Quandt said. "These workers are exposed to the risks of tobacco work for longer, more intensive periods of time than was ever the case for farming families."
Furthermore, she said, most of the migrants are from southern Mexico and are much shorter than the whites and African-Americans who used to work family tobacco farms. That difference in height may be critical during production when th
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