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Mercury in rituals raises alarms

In the Santeria religion, practitioners sometimes mix mercury with other ingredients to create potions believed to help lure a lover or curse an enemy.

They sprinkle the silver liquid around their homes and cars, burn it in candles, wear it in amulets, throw a few drops in their bathtubs.

Max Maya, a University of South Florida doctoral student who has used mercury about a dozen times during the decade he has practiced the religion, knows it has some health dangers. So he often tries to find alternatives.

But other Santerians, and some who practice similar religions in the Afro-Caribbean tradition, such as voodoo and Palo, continue to use the metallic liquid, which at high levels of exposure can damage the central nervous system and cause learning disabilities in children.

"How many use it on a daily basis?" asked Maya, 50. "I don't know. It's all according to the situation and what they're going to use it for and what the ritual is. It's like saying how many people eat rice. Some do, some don't. Some like potatoes."

Across the country, public health officials have investigated the ritualistic use of mercury in Caribbean religions _ from neighborhood surveys in New York City to urine tests in Chicago. But in Florida, home of what some say is one of the largest populations of Santeria and voodoo followers in the country, it has largely flown under the radar.

Some activists have criticized officials for not taking seriously the potential for mercury poisoning among those who practice these religions.

"These professionals, they all know what the score is and they don't want to get involved," said Arnold Wendroff, a retired schoolteacher who calls his efforts the Mercury Poisoning Project in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Officials with the Florida Department of Health said they are concerned about all mercury exposure, though they do not have specific studies under way.

Wendroff, who said he has tried to get Florida to address the issue, first learned of the ritualistic use of mercury in 1989 when he was teaching the periodic table of elements during a high school science class. When he came to mercury, "Hg," a student said his mother sprinkled it around his house to ward off witches.

Since then, Wendroff has written dozens of letters to government officials and politicians urging action. He has studied New York City wastewater plant logs to follow the trail of mercury from bathtubs and toilets to treatment plants. He got the Environmental Protection Agency to convene a task force on the ritualistic use of mercury. The task force recommended government officials inform mercury suppliers and users of the dangers.

But still, Wendroff said, little is being done to combat the problem because the source of the contamination is not a negligent corporation or disinterested landlord.

"The professional communities that would normally be and have been yelling up and down about exposure to lead, saying "It's the landlord's fault' elip they are intensely embarrassed about the issue," Wendroff said. "In this case, the community is doing it to themselves, and there's no deep-pocket agency to clean it up."

Mercury, a liquid metal that emits no odor but packs a toxic vapor, is used in the Santerian religion to rid obstacles and clear paths. Those who use it believe it can both harm people and offer protection.

For example, author Luis M. Nunez writes in Santeria, A Practical Guide to Afro-Caribbean Magic that to tie a lover to them, Santerians should place a piece of paper with their lover's name on it beneath a lodestone in a pot. They then sacrifice a rooster and let its blood drain into the pot. The pot then would be filled with seven drops of mercury and other substances that include sulphur, borax and poplar root. Finally, they burn a wick in the pot for seven days.

Santeria has its roots in African slaves who went to Cuba and gave their gods the names of Roman Catholic saints so they could continue to practice their religion. It is a highly secretive faith, so exact numbers are hard to come by. Estimates vary wildly, from 1-million to 4-million in the United States and 60,000 to 100,000 in Florida.

Though the extent of mercury's use in religious rituals is not well understood, its availability in stores called botanicas has been documented. These religious supply stores serve those who practice Santeria, voodoo, Espiritismo, Palo and other faiths that blend African and Christian beliefs.

In 1990, Wendroff surveyed 115 botanicas in cities such as San Francisco, Boston, Las Vegas, Tampa, Miami and New York and found 99 were selling mercury for rituals, according to an article in the journal Nature. And a 1995 survey of 41 Bronx botanicas published in the American Journal of Public Health found 38 of the 41 sold mercury. Wendroff said he went to six Miami botanicas in 1999 and was able to purchase mercury at four of them.

Visits to a handful of botanicas in Tampa this week revealed that all of the shopkeepers knew about azogue, the colloquial term for mercury, but all denied having it for sale. All of the shopkeepers were hesitant to talk about it. One said she stopped selling it six months ago and another insisted it was illegal. One shopkeeper suggested it could be found in a thermometer at Wal-Mart.

But Santeria insiders say that because the substance, while not illegal, has developed such negative connotations, botanica owners are loath to sell it to anyone they don't know.

"It's a quietly compartmentalized part of the population, so getting things and doing things, people are a little suspicious, people are guarded," said Maya, who said mercury is available at several Tampa botanicas. "That's the nature of the religion."

Mozella Mitchell, a professor of religious studies at USF, said many of those who practice Santeria and voodoo do it in secret because they have historically been persecuted. More recently, they've been criticized for the animal sacrifices that are part of many rituals.

"They don't expose themselves because they haven't been accepted," Mitchell said. "They're looked down upon. Why? Because they're called primitive and evil."

Virgilio Minino, president of the Latin-American Foundation for Environmental Protection in Miramar, said Florida has just as much of a mercury problem as cities such as New York and Chicago.

"I've tried to reach the politicians to get a better grant for research," Minino said. "It is a very serious issue. The reason I believe politicians don't do anything about it is because the religious beliefs are too strong for politicians to get involved. My personal opinion is that they don't want to touch that issue."

Mercury use has gotten more attention in larger urban areas.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is studying children in mostly Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago and New York City to measure the level of mercury in their urine. The Chicago tests are complete, but the results are not in, said Bernadette Burden, a CDC spokeswoman. New York City's tests are expected to begin in a few weeks.

State health department officials say they will soon be releasing a pamphlet on general mercury exposure that will be translated into Spanish, said Lisa Conti, division director of environmental health.

"The opportunity for mercury exposure is a concern, but our focus would be on general education rather than urine tests," Conti said.

Wendroff likened the government response to mercury to the way officials initially responded to the problem of lead about 30 years ago. It took time for people to understand the ramifications. Mercury sprinkled around an apartment, for example, can remain there, continuing to emit vapors for up to a decade and can cost $20,000 or more to clean up.

Maya, the Santeria practitioner, suggested the issue may not really be a problem at all. He noted that people have been using metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic in rituals for hundreds of years.

"My basic question is: Why are we worried about mercury?" Maya asked. "Religion has a lot of other things that are dangerous. The perception is that these people are doing things that are really different, but Christians long ago used mercury, and our society in the last century used mercury, and you know what? Mercury hasn't gone away."

_ Leonora LaPeter can be reached at (727) 893-8640 or lapetersptimes.com.

What is mercury?

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal that comes in several forms, including the organic mercury or methylmercury that builds up in fish, and elemental or metallic mercury found in thermometers and thermostats.

Symptoms of long-term exposure to mercury vapor include insomnia, forgetfulness, loss of appetite, mild tremor and symptoms that might be misdiagnosed as psychiatric illness. In 1997, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint mercury alert to the general public.

Children are most at risk.

Studies show that mercury exposure from some cultural uses, such as ritualistic use in certain Afro-Caribbean religions, may be below the level of health concern, but dangerous levels could occur if it was used too much or too often.

Sources: Environmental Health Perspectives, August 2001; Task Force on Ritualistic Uses of Mercury Report, EPA, December 2002; Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

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