Green Tobacco Sickness in Children and Adolescents

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is cultivated in more than 100 countries, and in 2004, some 5.73 million metric tons dry weight of tobacco were grown worldwide. The top five tobacco producers forecast for 2004 are China (2.01 million metric tons; 35.1%), Brazil (757 thousand metric tons; 13.2%), India (598 thousand metric tons; 10.4%), United States (358 thousand metric tons; 6.2%), and Malawi (138 thousand metric tons; 2.4%). Together, these five countries account for two-thirds of worldwide tobacco production. Tobacco farming presents several hazards to those who cultivate and harvest the plant. Although some of these hazards, such as pesticide exposure and musculoskeletal trauma, are faced by workers in other types of agricultural production, tobacco production presents some unique hazards, most notably acute nicotine poisoning, a condition also known as green tobacco sickness (GTS).

GTS occurs when workers absorb nicotine through the skin as they come into contact with leaves of the mature tobacco plant. GTS is characterized largely by nausea, vomiting, headache, muscle weakness, and dizziness. Historically, children have played a role in agricultural production in the United States, and they continue to do so today. This includes tobacco farming. The North American Guidelines for Children's Agricultural Tasks, a set of injury prevention guidelines prepared by the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, lists GTS as one of several hazards children face when working on tobacco farms. Children 17 years of age and younger who work on U.S. tobacco farms come from three main groups: members of farm families, migrant youth laborers (primarily Latinos), and other hired local children. All three groups are at risk for GTS. Beyond the U.S., tobacco production using child labor is an emerging topic of concern in developing nations. An international movement, advocated by the Eliminating Child Labor in Tobacco Foundation, is underway to restrict child labor in tobacco production. We suspect that many public health practitioners, clinicians, advocates, and researchers are unaware of GTS among children and adolescents.

In the article cited below, we provide an overview of GTS among young people who work in tobacco, summarize reports documenting pediatric GTS cases, explain GTS etiology, and present three case studies of pediatric GTS in Kentucky. In addition, we discuss the need for expanded surveillance and prevention of GTS, both in the United States and globally.

For more information or contact Robert H. McKnight, MPH, ScD Professor of Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health University of Kentucky College of Public Health Director, Southeast Center for Agricultural Health and Injury Prevention Suite 102, 1141 Red Mile Road Lexington, KY 40504-9842 Phone: 859-323-6866

McKnight RH, Spiller HA. Green tobacco sickness in children and adolescents. Public Health Rep. 2005:120(6):602-5.