A field worker wearing protective clothing to prevent absorption where wet green tobacco is being handled
Green tobacco sickness (GTS) is a short term occupational health risk that can affect tobacco farmers. It is caused by the absorption of dissolved nicotine through the skin, from the surface of wet tobacco.
Reported symptoms of GTS include nausea, vomiting, weakness, dizziness, abdominal cramps, excessive sweating, headache, and sometimes fluctuations in blood pressure or heart rate and tend to be short-lived and vary in intensity and persistence according to each individual and degree of exposure. Similar symptoms can appear in cases of heat stress and also in the unlikely event of exposure to Crop Protection Agents, sometimes making it difficult for doctors to diagnose GTS.
Although scientific research on the subject is limited and published evidence indicates the incidence to be low, we recognise GTS can be an occupational health risk for some tobacco workers who handle wet tobacco leaves.
In 2011, we commissioned independent research by Development Delivery International (DDI) into the impact of tobacco growing. This research comprised a literature review of over 300 published sources on the subject of tobacco farming and its social and environmental effects as well as field research in three contrasting tobacco growing countries.
The report states:
There are credible reports of GTS being experienced by tobacco workers. However, there is no credible evidence to indicate that GTS can have long-term effects and appropriate farming practices, including the use of protective clothing and avoiding contact with the tobacco plant when it is wet, can effectively manage the risk.
Minimising the risk of GTS
There are a number of steps we recommend tobacco workers take to reduce the risk of contracting GTS. These include:
- Avoiding handling wet tobacco by waiting for the rain (or dew) to dry from the leaf.
- Quickly changing out of wet clothes saturated with moisture originating from green tobacco leaves.
- Wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to avoid direct skin contact with tobacco during harvesting. We recommend clothing such as gloves, trousers and shirts / aprons made from impermeable cloth, although in hot weather this can increase the risk of heat stress. The success of this measure largely depends on the farmers’ willingness to use PPE.
Anyone who shows symptoms of GTS should stop handling the tobacco, rinse any skin that has been in direct or indirect contact with wet tobacco, change their clothes and seek medical advice. They should visit their healthcare providers for diagnosis and treatment.
Our business is actively working to improve its understanding of GTS.
We believe that education is key and that tobacco workers should be given practical guidance to better understand and avoid the risks of contracting the illness. Education programmes include information about risk factors, preventative measures, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.