About one-fourth of migrant farm workers harvesting tobacco will develop symptoms of green tobacco sickness or nicotine poisoning -- the result of nicotine from fresh tobacco being absorbed through the skin, according to a study in the July Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
The actual prevalence may be higher since some workers became ill and left the worksite before they could be interviewed, according to researchers.
Led by Thomas Arcury of Wake Forest University, the researchers interviewed 182 migrant workers -- mainly Latinos -- during the tobacco harvest in North Carolina.
At some time during the harvest, 24 percent of the workers developed symptoms of green tobacco sickness, including dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting.
These symptoms were more likely to occur during the leaf-picking phase of harvest and while they were working in wet clothing caused by morning dew or rain in the field.
According to the researchers, preventive measures, such as wearing protective clothing, did not offer any protection.
Arcury and colleagues stressed the need to reduce this and other occupational exposures in migrant workers who have little control over workplace safety.
"Reducing farmworkers'' risks ... is an issue of environmental justice that needs to be addressed," researchers wrote.
by Virginia Sutcliffe-Foran