|On many mornings, as tobacco plants tower around her, Saray Cambray Alvarez pulls a black plastic garbage bag over her 13-year-old body to protect her skin from leaves dripping with nicotine-tinged dew.|
When Saray and other workers — including several more teenagers — get to the fields at 6, they punch holes through the bags for their arms. They are trying to avoid what is known as “green tobacco sickness,” or nicotine poisoning, which can cause vomiting, dizziness and irregular heart rates, among other symptoms.
Saray says that she sometimes has trouble breathing in the middle of all the heat, humidity and leaves, and that she often feels weary during her 12-hour shifts, when she moves through the rows to pluck unwanted flowers or pull off oversize leaves for the harvest.
“You get very thirsty,” said Saray, who sometimes waits an hour in 90-plus heat for a drink until her crew returns to the opposite side of a field, where the water jugs are parked. “It’s too hard for me, and it’s too hot.”
Saray says she is lucky not to have become really sick, whereas others have become visibly ill. “Last week, they made us work when it was raining, and I got water in my mouth and I felt dizziness and nausea,” Ana Flores said of exposure to wet tobacco leaves — the plants’ nicotine often dissolves in rain and dew. At 16, she is spending her third summer in the tobacco fields. “I...