Thanks To New Pill, UC Davis Study Explores Heat Illness Among Workers

Oct 13, 2015

Working outside in the heat is something many people in the Central Valley have to do on a daily basis. The hot weather is a concern especially for those who work in the valley’s fields. From 2000 to 2012 nearly 7,000 people were hospitalized in California for heat related illnesses and around 600 died. California now has the toughest workplace regulations when it comes to heat but there’s still a problem- accurately measuring internal body temperature. Now as FM89’s Diana Aguilera reports new technology is allowing researchers to gain insight into the problem in the search for solutions.

It’s early in the morning at UC Davis and landscaper Willie Hernandez is about to take a pill for a medical study.

“It’s kind of like a vitamin pill you know kind of big," he says. "I didn’t have any problems with it I swallowed it pretty good. As far as any effects I don’t feel anything.”

But he’s not swallowing a regular pill. It’s actually a high tech digital device used to measure internal body temperature. Researchers from UC Davis are hoping that with this new technology, they can have a better picture on how to prevent heat related illnesses and deaths among agricultural workers.

Marc Schenker is one of the lead researchers.

"It's an amazing technology that has addressed a big problem because before this getting continuous accurate body temperature was a real challenge, you couldn't do it."

Up until a few years ago, medical experts struggled on how to effectively measure body temperature in outdoor workers. In the past, they’ve tried ear or skin devices but the sweat and movement from working all day made it hard to get accurate results.

Schenker says in the last few years this high tech silicone capsule known as “horse pill” because of its large size has revolutionized the way people do research about this topic.

“It’s basically just like a vitamin pill that you swallow and a little receiver that gets a continuous signal of body temperature from that pill. And the pill is passed and not used again," Schenker says."That we found is the most accurate and reliable way to get core body temperatures in these workers.”

More than 500 farmworkers throughout the state have participated in the study. Researchers have also done focus groups in Spanish and in indigenous languages discussing how to protect worker’s health in a high-heat environment. This time around, they’re doing the same study on landscapers.

Local doctors say in certain circumstances knowing the exact core body temperature can be crucial. 

“At the extreme ranges of temperature knowing a core temperature is say above 107 would be very very helpful in knowing the urgency of the situation and how quickly and how aggressive the measures are to cool the patient," says Susan Spano with UCSF Fresno.

Back at UC Davis, research assistant Carlos Pina and I follow landscaper Willie Hernandez. It’s a sunny relatively cool day with a bit of wind.

“You see how this ivy has been on all the wall. So what I want to do is at least get this off here," Hernandez says.

While he's pruning away,  Pina is taking notes. He says writing down the landscaper’s activities is an important part of the research.

The capsule is FDA approved and one-time use only.

“We can better explain certain data so for example if we see a big dip within their core body temperature and we write down at 10:22 a.m. they drank water then we can explain why there was a dip.”

After the landscapers finish their shift, the researchers download the data sent from the pill the workers swallowed earlier that day. The capsule is FDA approved and one-time use only. Pina says it’s the least invasive way known to measure core body temperature.

“It’s completely safe we have used it over 500 participants in the last three years. We’ve never had an issue," he says. "This pill has been used in other research projects-  other agencies including military and firefighters. They have ingested this pill as well.”

This is the first in depth study of heat illness among agricultural workers in California. Researchers hope to create new prevention strategies for both the workers and farmers when they present their findings next year.