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Sickness Afflicts Tobacco Farmers


September-October 1994

Green tobacco sickness (GTS) is "an illness that is inflicting a tremendous burden on this nation, both in terms of human and economic costs," according to J. Donald Millar, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), reacting to a study tracing the effects of this kind of nicotine poisoning (Rich Smith, "Workers who Farm Tobacco in Danger," Nashville Banner, Sept. 13, 1994, p. B1).

The study by the Institute estimates that more than 600 workers in Kentucky went to emergency rooms for treatment of GTS in a two-month period in 1993 (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control, vol. 42, no. 13: (April 9, 1993); Update, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, July 8, 1993).

GTS strikes tobacco farmers and harvesters. It develops when unprotected skin comes in contact with wet tobacco and can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, abdominal cramping, headaches, difficulty in breathing, weakness, and blood pressure and heart rate fluctuation.

"Nothing has ever made me as sick as tobacco," said one tobacco farmer, who refused to be identified. "It can make you feel like you're going to die."

[NewsBriefs talked with Janet Ehlers, one of the researchers on the Kentucky GTS study. According to Ehlers, data on GTS are difficult to collect because of the nature of farming as compared to other industries. Farming operates under different regulations, workers compensation and reimbursement rules, and often uses a migrant labor force. NIOHS has been trying to spread the word to tobacco harvesters and migrant farmerworkers to avoid contact with wet tobacco. If you are interested in GTS, contact Janet Ehlers at 513-841-4353.]