And now, green tobacco sickness!

17 May 2013

There IS an occupational health risk that can be acquired from the green tobacco plant which even tobacco farmers themselves are not fully aware of.

This is the green tobacco sickness (GTS), a form of nicotine poisoning that may be contracted by handling while moist, fresh, green tobacco leaves. The nicotine from the plant, which is soluble in water, can be drawn out into the surface of the leaves by rain or dew. When the nicotine is absorbed by the skin through contact, it will pass directly into the bloodstream and can cause acute nicotine poisoning.

Among the symptoms associated with GTS are nausea, vomiting, dizziness, stomach cramps, excessive sweating, headache, paleness, breathing difficulties, and fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rate. According to Wikipedia, between 8 and 9 percent of tobacco GTS based on a recent international report may affect harvesters.

GTS is often disregarded by tobacco farmers because many of those who were affected with this condition have commonly mistaken the symptoms as sign of fatigue or heat stress, according to Domingo Agne, field operations officer of Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corporation (PMFTC) Inc. during a recent tobacco exposure trip in Ilocos Region.

Once affected, one can feel the symptoms in as little as one hour after he started working, and can last for 12 to 48 hours.

Agne said that those who are working as harvesters are at a greater risk of contracting GTS. This is because harvesting the leaves is done manually, during which harvesters hold cut leaves close to their body.

Although GTS is not life-threatening, PMFTC deemed it important to bring it to tobacco farmers' attention as it may result in discomfort and loss of productivity during working hours at the farm.

For tobacco farm workers to avoid developing GTS, PMFTC is taking a number of steps as part of its Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program. In this regard, the company is raising awareness among tobacco growers through education and prevention. One of these is the development of GTS safety awareness materials - containing information about GTS symptoms, risk factors, preventive measures, and treatment - which is distributed to its contract growers.

On-farm, PMFTC agronomists advise tobacco farmers to wear appropriate clothes while harvesting tobacco leaves. Agne said they must wear long sleeve shirts and gloves to minimize skin exposure to the tobacco plant. Changing clothes when it got wet or soaked with moisture from tobacco leaves can help a lot in preventing GTS.

It is also important to take periodical breaks during work as incidence of GTS increases with the exertion of physical force. If possible, harvesting must be done for less than seven hours a day in a cooler and drier conditions. Finally, wash hands and body thoroughly with soap and water after working in the tobacco farm.--Melpha M. Abello