Two summers ago, Arizona anthropologist C. Allison Newby came to the New York area to do a study of what appeared to be an alarming underground phenomenon. She wanted to figure out how many people were following an ancient belief that sprinkling mercury around one’s home brings fortune and love, and discourages evil from darkening one’s door. Along with Donna M. Riley, an engineer who now teaches at Smith College, Newby sought to crack into a community that had been the subject of growing interest among academics: people whose religious beliefs encouraged use of this liquid metal, which is highly toxic, as part of their rituals.
There had been much talk in the public health world of practitioners of Santeria, Vodun and other underground religions of Caribbean origin contaminating their homes and vehicles by sprinkling mercury. But so far, no one had been able to document just how far-reaching this practice might be.
Newby and Riley’s initial idea was to interview personnel at botanicas–neighborhood stores that sell the paraphernalia used in religious ceremonies–to determine how accessible mercury actually is. One of the goals was to understand the metal’s power in the belief systems of the predominantly Hispanic population that practices Santeria. “We wanted to establish prevalence,” says Newby. “How many people were actually using mercury, and with what frequency?”
But they quickly found that two white women, offering $10 gift certificates in exchange for a 20-minute interview, couldn’t get very far. “People don’t like to talk about mercury,” she says. “There are many myths of what can happen to you if you are caught with mercury.” People feared they would be arrested, put out of business, deported. “It was impossible–no one wanted to talk.”
It didn’t help that the New York City Department of Health had already sent letters to botanicas around the city warning them that they needed to label their stocks of mercury as a hazardous substance. Selling mercury is legal, but because it is a hazardous material, it has to be labeled as such or vendors can be fined anywhere from $100 to $2,000.
In fact, the only merchant who would even admit to knowing anything about mercury was the owner of a New Age store in New Hope, Pennsylvania, who told them mercury is part of some pagan rituals of European origin.
Finally, without any Santeria practitioners to interview, they advertised in newspapers and on the Internet–and received just three responses.
Newby concluded that while the ritualistic use of mercury may be a real problem, “the current approach of targeting Latinos is definitely not going to work.” When researchers or health officials have tried to bring attention to the phenomenon, she says, it has only made the very people they’re trying to help more fearful and wary. “The community,” she says, “is completely and totally shut down.”
It’s understandable why health authorities are so eager to find people who scatter mercury in their homes. Once the metal is spilled into a room, it enters walls and floors. Over time, tiny microscopic balls vaporize–sometimes continuing to affect occupants of an apartment long after the original tenants have moved on. Some reports suggest mercury can continue to vaporize for up to two decades. And even a tiny amount can be highly hazardous: It’s an axiom that one tablespoon can contaminate an entire lake.
The effects of mercury poisoning are well documented, and children and fetuses are especially vulnerable. Inhaling vapors over time can lead to acute bronchitis, tremors, emotional instability, gingivitis and insomnia. Even more toxic is methyl mercury, formed when the metal enters bodies of water. There it passes into the flesh of fish, and from there into humans who eat them.
Newby and Riley were not the first researchers to attempt to determine the extent to which people might be harming themselves and those around them in the belief that they were bringing good luck. Their venture was inspired by a 1995 study by Drs. Luis H. Zayas and Philip O. Ozuah of Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. The doctors found that of 41 botanica owners interviewed, 38 admitted selling mercury in capsules. Zayas and Ozuah were following up on previous reports as well as their own informal observations in the early 1990s.
Those strands of information became fuel for a media frenzy. From 1991 to 1998, a slew of newspaper articles claimed to reveal a new public health scourge. Warned the New York Post: “Thousands of followers of the Caribbean Santeria religion are slowly poisoning themselves and their children with mercury–swallowed or scattered during an ancient good-luck ritual. From East Harlem to Flatbush, worshippers spread the liquid-metal poison in their homes, unaware that its vapors can be lethal and that mercury can stick around for years.”
Such reports took on a life of their own. By July 2001, they had even found their way into the medical journal Pediatrics, in an article about sources of mercury in the environment.
Now, a decade after the news on ritual mercury first surfaced, two major public health projects–one a research, outreach and education project funded by the National Institutes of Health, the other a Centers for Disease Control study of mercury poisoning among Latino children–are getting underway in New York, seeking to uncover the full story on mercury and human health in the urban environment.
But these large-scale federal investigations are being greeted with some misgivings by practitioners of Santeria and Vodun as well as community groups working in Latino communities in the region–even among some of the people who will actually be working on the new efforts to educate and inform the public on mercury’s hazards. They are concerned not only that any findings will be ripe for more sensationalistic headlines, but that the focus on household poisoning singles out an exotic-seeming practice–and a single, relatively powerless group of people. Why, they ask, are other contributors of mercury to the environment, which may be just as devastating to human health, not getting the same attention?
“It has been shown by the EPA and other people that the biggest source of mercury is from coal-burning power plants. How many articles do you see about that?” asks Marian Feinberg, health plan coordinator for the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, an environmental justice group that is participating in the NIH project. “It is very easy to lay blame on an individual–much harder to consider the larger physical environment that people live in.”
The recent bout of mercury mania isn’t the first time Santeria, Espiritismo and Vodun–secretive religions surrounded by whispers of animal sacrifice and strict initiations–have intrigued curious outsiders.
Donald Consentino, a professor of folklore at UCLA, notes that Vodun and its Cuban cousin Santeria have a disproportional presence in American popular imagination. Stereotypes of killer zombies and “voodoo dolls” have been a way to either dismiss or demonize this piece of African culture.
The demonization of these religions was born out of the 1792 slave revolts that resulted in the establishment of Haiti, the first black democratic republic. Cosentino theorizes that the American preoccupation with Vodun began with the need to explain what appeared to be the ultimate white man’s nightmare. North American colonists clung to the notion that “blacks could not defeat white people otherwise.” Concludes Cosentino, “It comes down to racism. It is a way to bash black culture.”
While Santeria and its variants incorporate a wide variety of belief systems, they are essentially a synthesis of west African religions and Roman Catholicism, including a pantheon of saints. In order to retain their heritage, it is believed, the Santerias hid their beliefs behind the trappings of their slave-owners’ Christian theology. Born into and out of a repressive society, these religions were preserved by oral tradition–and always hidden.
Then they were brought to New York with different waves of immigrants from the Caribbean–in the case of Santeria, from Puerto Rico and Cuba. “The religion is the heart of the community,” says Carlos Padilla, president of South Bronx Clean Air Coalition. “There is nothing wrong with our spiritual beliefs. It gets us by, day to day.” For many Puerto Rican New Yorkers, botanicas are like mental health centers, places they can go to cure their troubles and find peace of mind.
Mercury use, religious leaders make clear, is not a myth. Eric Canales, who will soon be initiated as a priest of the Palo Mayombe religion, worked at a botanica around the time that the news reports on mercury started coming out. Some of his customers were regular buyers of mercury capsules. “I would see people buying it more often than they should be,” recalls Canales. Most were spiritual leaders, and he got the impression they were prescribing it about two to three times a week.
Canales had heard of people using it in their homes and burning it in candles. Later, in his job as a community liaison officer for the New York Academy of Medicine, he came across other, sometimes bizarre ideas about mercury. At an educational meeting about diabetes in East Harlem, one woman claimed that “if you get a cut and put mercury on it, you will not bleed.”
With his connections in both the scientific and religious communities, Canales started to look more closely at the mercury mystery, working with the doctors at Montefiore. He found that the idea of mercury holding spiritual powers is widespread, reaching back into the histories of European, Asian and African belief systems.
Canales was troubled by how Hispanics, and particularly those who followed African-rooted beliefs, were essentially being blamed for contaminating the environment. He also came to see that the mercury phenomenon as described in the media was far more extreme than actual practice. “It is not used as indiscriminately as I thought it was,” says Canales. “There is this perception that is used constantly–but it’s not…I was raised in this community. It is not like people are sprinkling mercury around their homes constantly.”
One of the most common ways people use mercury is simply to carry around a capsule of the stuff or string one around the neck. Because the material is encased, it is not any more dangerous than wearing a thermometer. When people were using it around the home, Canales says, once they were educated about the dangers, “most of them said, ‘Wow–we didn’t know. We won’t do this anymore.'”
But before there was a chance to further educate people on mercury’s toxicity, the entire community was pushed underground. The Health Department letter, Canales recalls, caused a “system-wide panic among botanicas.” They interpreted it to mean that they would be monitored, that the government was going to intrude on their belief systems. “Now there is a black market for mercury,” Canales says. “We missed a very good opportunity to regulate it.”
With the new NIH project, Canales and doctors at Montefiore are trying to revisit the idea of a public health response to mercury use–and do it in a way that actually reduces harmful use of the toxin, instead of driving it further underground.
The NIH has committed $2 million from its environmental justice department for a two-part project over five years to help educate Bronx residents. The Bronx collaboration–between Montefiore, Einstein College of Medicine and the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition–hopes to give spiritual leaders, clergy and other community opinion-makers working knowledge of environmental toxins, including but not exclusively mercury.
One part of the NIH grant is for education and outreach. The project partners will develop educational materials that will explain the dangers of all sources of mercury, including Santeria supplies, but also common household items such as thermometers, fluorescent bulbs, batteries and old latex paint. They’ll also hold workshops bringing together environmentalists, academics, religious leaders and others to discuss what they know and make sure the educational materials are accurate and effective.
The grant’s second part will let the group work with community religious leaders to develop a protocol for dealing with the use of a toxic substance within a religious or cultural context, without causing a panic.
But first, there will be period of information-gathering. What the partnership could promise the NIH was access, says Feinberg. It touted its connections within the community, particularly to indigenous religious leaders, who, she notes, are an outsider’s only link to this world but (as Newby learned) are also notoriously difficult to reach. “The religious community has already been subject to a lot of repression, a lot of stigmatization. The last thing they want to do is feed into it,” Feinberg says. “It happens a lot in public health. Mandates are handed down by people who really don’t know the community from the inside.”
Carlos Padilla says that in the past, authorities failed to understand the cultural sensitivities of Santeria communities. Padilla first learned of the mercury issue in the mid 1990s, from a public health activist named Arnold Wendroff. Padilla started researching it and concluded that “this information should be disseminated into the community, but this guy is going to piss people off…and then nothing will be accomplished. When the Santeria community feels like it is under attack, no matter how minor the assault, they will form a circle and fight,” he says.
Such defensiveness has been fueled by common caricatures. Feinberg sums up the outside world’s view of Santeria as, “‘Oh yeah, those are the people that sacrifice chickens and eat babies for breakfast.'”
The view among Latinos, Feinberg observes, is typically very different: Practioners of Santeria are often some of the most well-respected members of the community.
Even with the most sensitive and informed outreach, however, there’s no guarantee of success. Allison Newby observes that there is no incentive for the community to cooperate–since government agencies are not poised to help.
Remediation of mercury-contaminated buildings is extremely expensive, and buildings found to be contaminated with high levels are generally condemned. Those suspected of contaminating an area are not going to be welcomed back. Says Newby, “So now, you have the owner of the apartment pissed off at you, and the people who just lost their apartments pissed off at you–and you have essentially solved nothing.”
Almost anyone in the field of public health or medicine who has taken an interest in household mercury use started out with a phone call or letter from Arnold Wendroff, a relentless crusader against mercury exposure. Wendroff was the first to sound the alarm among New York City health officials back in 1991, when he was a junior high school teacher in Brooklyn.
While teaching his class the periodic table, he stopped at Hg, the symbol for mercury, and asked if anyone knew what the element was used for. He expected them to say “thermometers.” But instead, one of his students said his mother sprinkled mercury on the floor to keep away brujo, the word for witches in the Santeria tradition.
Wendroff has a doctorate in medical sociology, with a specialty in the traditional medicine and witchcraft of the southeast African country of Malawi. His interest started when he was a Peace Corps volunteered in the 1960s and grew into a lifelong passion that led to 19 trips back to Africa. “So when this kid mentioned Santeria, I knew about Santeria because I had been studying similar traditions in Africa,” recalls Wendroff. “It sparked a familiar chord.”
Wendroff started going to botanicas in Brooklyn and the Bronx, buying vials of mercury, sometimes for as little as $1. Along the way, he collected more anecdotes: of people putting mercury in beer and drinking it, using it in water to mop floors, and mixing it with molten wax in candles. He alerted city health officials, who did a preliminary investigation but then dropped it. Out of frustration with the public response and a desire to educate and to speak out for “the children who are being poisoned by this stuff,” Wendroff started the Mercury Poisoning Project.
Working out of his home in Park Slope, Wendroff is a one-man publicity machine. He is quoted in almost all articles on this issue that appear in the mainstream press, and writes academic papers of his own. He speaks at conferences and conducts seminars. His office is filled with files of letters written to every single elected public official who could conceivably address the problem–from borough presidents to the governor, every single public health official and every known Latino organization. He keeps track of every published mention of ritualistic mercury. His files are so thorough that government agencies have come to depend on his work.
When the EPA, working with Donna Riley, put together the Task Force on the Ritualistic Use of Mercury in 1999, the government panel credited Wendroff for its very existence.
But for the amount of credit he is given, he is also equally dismissed, he says, particularly by members of the Santeria community and many Hispanic organizations–even those whose studies he cites as evidence. He says it is because of the loaded question of how to handle cleanup. “The powers that be would rather I went away,” says Wendroff. When it comes to cleaning up untold amounts of contamination, he says, “we are talking about a very, very expensive proposition.”
But beyond that are the explosive politics of ethnic difference, and he reserves particular scorn for Latinos who he says are too “embarrassed” to tackle the issue head-on. Wendroff believes that government officials, for their part, are too afraid of singling out religious or cultural groups because it is not politically correct. At a time when he contends that buildings throughout New York should be tested for mercury contamination, he is livid that not even the most basic laws are being enforced.
Padilla isn’t the only health advocate critical of Wendroff’s drum-beating on mercury poisoning. “We have someone out there crying wolf, when we don’t know if it is a wolf or a lion or a lamb,” complains Hal Strelnick, director of community health at Montefiore and a director of the NIH project. He accuses Wendroff of creating a political environment “that makes it difficult to do careful collaborative work.”
Strelnick is particularly concerned that scientific research will be distorted or even derailed by efforts to get health authorities to tackle mercury poisoning as a problem of mere enforcement. Any subsequent outreach would be just as compromised. He likens it to the early days of the AIDS crisis, when bathhouses were considered a public health menace and were the subject of a campaign to shut them down. That did not educate or change the behavior of those at risk, he says. “It just moves it into a place where it cannot be regulated.”
He’s also not happy that Wendroff bases his conclusions about the extent of ritual mercury use on the early work of his Montefiore colleagues Zayas and Ozuah–the latter of whom is now participating in the NIH project–even though the researchers made clear that their work was only preliminary. Says Strelnick, “They are saying we still don’t know, and Wendroff is saying, ‘Well, I know!'”
As one of the religious leaders participating in the project, Canales believes the education effort must cast a much wider net. The entire public needs to understand the dangers of mercury, not just one targeted group, Canales says. There are plenty of people who come into contact with mercury through their work–health care providers, plumbers, and construction workers, among others. And, as Canales has discovered in his research, mercury shows up in a wide range of religious practices, from pagan witchcraft to Hinduism.
But Wendroff continues to promote the evidence he has to whomever will listen. One of those who did is Clyde Johnson, an adjunct assistant professor of environmental science at CUNY. In 1996, he met Wendroff at a conference on pediatric environmental health and came back determined to find some answers. Using as research assistants 14 environmental science students from Hostos Community College in the Bronx, all of whom had Latino or Caribbean ancestry, Johnson gathered information from interviews of 203 Latino and Caribbean adults in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. He wanted to answer the following questions: Is mercury actually being used? Who is using it? How is it being used and how is it being disposed of?
Johnson’s study found that 44 percent of those interviewed from the Caribbean and 27 percent from Latin America admitted using mercury in their homes or cars, or wore it around their necks.
Other public health researchers would later criticize the study, because it was not based on random samples. But Johnson stands by his research. “We do have qualitative information,” he says. “We do know it is being used and we have established for sure where they are getting it from–the botanicas. And we know what it is being prescribed for.” But, he acknowledges, “We don’t have hard quantitative data. We don’t have medical data.”
And that’s what particularly aggravates Feinberg. There are still more questions than answers, she says, and until that changes, she believes, any efforts to change people’s behavior are doomed to failure. Feinberg’s biggest concern is that a focus on ritualistic use is a diversion from much larger sources of contamination. Most mercury, she notes, enters into the environment via coal-burning power plants and medical incinerators. “It’s like isolating one group of people who follow a certain religious belief without looking at and addressing the more common exposure through broken thermometers and power plants,” Feinberg says. The crucial step in the new research, she maintains, is establishing the prevalence of ritual use, so any dangers can be put in proper perspective.
Strelnick boils it down to numbers: Even if people are using mercury in a ritualistic manner, the amount is “infinitesimal compared to the amount that is in the air and in the water,” he says. “We may be dealing with tons of mercury going into the air, and here we are talking about ounces going into the environment through ritualistic use.”
One of the purposes of the Montefiore project is to find out more about environmental factors–the garbage transfer stations and power plants, the fish that people catch in local waters and then eat–and how industrial sources are contributing to the hazards mercury may be posing to human health. At this stage, “We don’t have the answer to any of those questions,” he notes.
In the absence of information, hysteria can end up being a dangerous force in itself. “A lot of people think, when it comes to the environment, that everything is poisoning,” says Strelnick. “This adds to the sense of fatalism. So people just say, ‘What can I do?’ and continue to use mercury if they happen to use it. With so many people crying wolf, it is a real challenge. Some of these things are dangerous and some of them aren’t.”
Almost all humans, animals and fish have traces of mercury in their bodies–released naturally from rocks but also absorbed through the air from coal burning and waste incineration. The real danger comes when more mercury accumulates.
In New York, the metal gets into the harbor primarily through water–in the form of sludge or effluent releases from wastewater treatment plants–and by air, through incinerators and coal-burning power plants as well as spills that vaporize over time. Mercury contamination is a worldwide problem, and it is increasingly difficult to find uncontaminated fish.
While there are no reliable numbers of the amount of mercury in the atmosphere, the New York Academy of Sciences recently published a report on the level of mercury in New York/New Jersey waterways. It offers clues as to how much might be in our air and who is putting it there.
Based on some non-random (and therefore somewhat unreliable) studies, including Johnson’s, the Academy’s report estimated the extent to which “Relig/Cultural Use” contributes to the presence of mercury in the city’s waterways–it’s roughly equal to that generated by industrial and commercial furnaces.
The overall atmospheric mercury rate, says Susan Boehme, a project manager for the New York Academy of Sciences, is almost impossible to gauge because much of the airborne mercury in the region actually originates in coal-burning power plants in the midwest, and then gets carried east on the prevailing winds.
In addition, mercury is released when incinerators burn the sludge that comes from wastewater treatment plants. Simple household items such as fluorescent lamps also contribute to atmospheric mercury: The Academy estimates that nearly 25 percent of the mercury inside a fluorescent lamp vaporizes into the air at landfills before burial.
In the past, airborne sources were blamed for most of the mercury contamination in New York, in both the air and water. But the Academy’s study confirmed an alarming phenomenon: the major source of mercury in the harbor was runoff from dental offices. “That was the most surprising find,” says Boehme. “Dental usage is one of the highest sources.” It amounts to about 4,000 kilograms of mercury a year. (Area hospitals were the next highest contributor, with 1,400 kilograms a year.)
Dental amalgam, used for fillings, is an alloy of mercury, silver, copper and tin, 50 percent of which is mercury. It’s safe in the mouth, but highly toxic when burned and also contaminates waterways–which is why several European countries require that amalgam be kept out of air and water. The American Dental Association supports the continued use of dental amalgams, saying that there is no evidence of health hazards. Banning amalgam, the Association states on its web site, “would only deprive patients and dentists of an an essential treatment option that is clinically and scientifically substantiated to be safe and effective.”
The New York City Department of Health would love to help those poisoned with mercury. But reports are rare, and most can be attributed to an accidental spill, says Nancy Jeffery, director of Environmental/ Occupational Disease Epidemiology at DOH. The vast majority of mercury poisoning comes from the flesh of fish. (In 1999, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study found that 1 in 10 American women may have harmful levels of mercury in their system.
When the Health Department does get mercury results, follow-up interviews usually reveal that it is diet-related or an accidental or occupational poisoning.
Nonetheless, the health department is in the planning stages of a Centers for Disease Control–sponsored study that would look at the mercury levels in the urine of Latino children. The study will test between 100 and 150 children, starting this spring, in either the Bronx or Brooklyn.
“We are trying to identify clinics that have a large percentage of kids from the Hispanic population or the Caribbean population. We will look at the mercury levels in urine as well as blood,” Jeffery says–testing that would reveal excessive levels of mercury that had been transmitted via skin contact, including, presumably, ritually spilled mercury. It will not be possible, however, to conclusively determine whether the origin of such contamination was at home or from environmental sources.
Purposeful spills due to ritualistic use are still undocumented, Jeffrey admits. “We have not seen much physical evidence of cases in this way. We just don’t see that,” says Jefferey. “But that doesn’t mean that people are not using mercury. We have had conferences where practitioners relay stories of mercury use. Some burn it in candles, some in a tea, others put it in vials.”
As with lead poisoning, the city and state health departments require any physician or lab to report elevated levels of heavy metals such as mercury. Yet mercury tests are rarely given. Wendroff claims that doctors are not testing for it because the health department has not done a good enough job informing them on how to look for symptoms. In early 2000, a simple black-and-white brochure was sent out to about 50 physicians’ offices in areas with significant Hispanic populations, but there was no reporting back, so the effectiveness of the information is unknown.
The long-term challenges for health officials could be far greater. Should the new research conclude that ritual use is indeed a public health emergency, it could make the fierce legal and political battles over childhood lead poisoning and lead paint cleanup look like a minor-league event. Remediation costs, legal liability, even housing discrimination–all are possibilities down the road. Many experts predict that mercury could become the next big public health issue after lead. “We are still learning how lead in the body can do harm,” says Strelnick. “That may be the same with mercury.”
Carlos Padilla’s observation about earlier public health interventions could just as easily apply to this new wave of research. “Sometimes in the process of doing good, you create evil,” he says. “You have to be very careful about what you ask for.”
Smita Paul is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist.
This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship for Journalists of Color, a project sponsored by the Independent Press Association.