Washburn, NorthJersey.com, Mar. 16
The voodoo priest sits in a room lighted by burning candles, where masks and saints, liquor bottles, and a bowl of money are arranged on altars. Azogue is a toxic and dangerous substance, he begins.
He explains its allures: It speeds the magical effects of spells cast for the loveless, the luckless, and the sick, some believe. It is a talisman to the gambler, a protector against the evil eye. Some sprinkle it in rooms, cars — even baby cribs — for protection.
Azogue is quicksilver — mercury.
It is poison.
It is a poison that lowers children’s academic performance and increases their behavior problems. In Hudson County, it contaminated the air in one in five apartment buildings surveyed for a recent study. So many people have been exposed to it that health officials have detected it in the sewage flowing into New York Harbor.
And it is widely available in the botanicas, or folk pharmacies, of Latino and Caribbean communities in New Jersey, where a tiny glass bottle containing up to 2 teaspoons usually sells for $3.
The voodoo priest stopped selling it three years ago. But elsewhere, “it sells a lot, I’m telling you,” says Felix Mota, the priest and owner of St. Barbara Botanica in Passaic. “I used to order 10 or 12 dozen [vials], and it would be gone in less than two or three months.”
Some experts say the widespread use of mercury for folk medicine and ritual among Hispanic and Haitian immigrants could end up costing millions of dollars — for the additional expense of educating affected children and cleaning up hundreds of contaminated apartments. In Passaic City, Hudson County, and New York City, the use of mercury is just beginning to come to the attention of health officials.
“This is not an extremely common event,” says Dr. Michael Gochfeld, the principal investigator of the New Jersey study. “But it’s not rare enough that we can be complacent.”
A 2002 study found that indoor air samples in almost one-fifth of the 67 Hudson County apartment buildings tested had elevated levels of mercury and that nearly all of 22 Hudson County Santeria practitioners and botanica employees used mercury. Priests of Santeria, a religion practiced by some Cubans, and voodoo occasionally use mercury in rituals.
A follow-up study this year will systematically check the air inside apartments and hallways.
The ramifications could be explosive.
Mercury is a potent toxin — long-lasting, readily spread through droplets and evaporation, and easily absorbed through the lungs. If inhaled on the job, it is considered an occupational hazard for which evacuation and hazardous materials cleanup are required.
In adults, mercury exposure can cause personality changes, tremors, and damage to a person’s lungs, kidneys, and stomach. In children, mercury vapors easily pass into the brain and nervous system, causing permanent developmental problems. Children may be slow to walk and talk, less intelligent, and more susceptible to autism and attention deficit disorder.
In buildings, contamination can last for a decade, as the mercury slowly evaporates. It is absorbed by porous surfaces: carpets, wood floors, even concrete.
Most exposure in humans occurs through the diet, by consuming fish with high levels of methylmercury, a mercury compound.
Arnold Wendroff, a medical sociologist who founded the Mercury Poisoning Project in Brooklyn, says state, federal, and local officials have failed to act on a problem that leads to millions of dollars in special-education costs and will eventually require the evacuation and cleanup of hundreds of apartments.
There is “a strong probability that large populations are exposed to developmentally neurotoxic levels of mercury vapor in their dwellings,” he says.
Much of the exposure is to people who have no idea that previous tenants sprinkled or spilled mercury inside, he says.
“Once you throw that mercury on the floor, it’s going to stay there for a decade,” he says. “The metal is absorbed by porous surfaces, and can only be removed by taking out carpet, wood flooring, and concrete to a thickness of half an inch.
“No one really wants to address this issue,” Wendroff says, “given the enormity of the political and economic fallout.”
The sale of mercury is legal as long as it is properly labeled as a hazardous substance. Sales in northern New Jersey have been driven underground, researchers say, because botanica owners think it is illegal or fear they will be held responsible for spills or harmful consequences.
Still, mercury is readily available. “People buy it a lot!” Mota says.
Researchers say mercury is used in two ways: as part of an organized religion, such as Santeria, Espiritismo, or voodoo, where priests imbue it with spiritual power in certain rituals, or in cultural or superstitious practices in which people believe it brings good luck.
“People buy it to put in candles — candles for money, for love, to pray for somebody,” Mota says. He used to put a drop of mercury in perfume or bath oils, to spread over the body for good luck, but he doesn’t anymore.
“I tell people, ‘Don’t use it. It’s so dangerous.’“
One woman Mota treated six or seven years ago had swallowed mercury at the instruction of a santero, a Santeria priest, before she came to the United States.
Mota says he was recently offered a 10-pound jar of mercury, but he didn’t want to repackage it himself. As a practicing voodoo priest and initiated santero, he’s too busy with private consultations and tarot readings for his patients. Besides, “Where would I do it? Here? At home where my kids are?”
In a 1996 survey by Montefiore Medical Center of 38 botanicas in the Bronx, researchers found that the stores sold a minimum of 25,000 vials a year, nearly half a ton annually in that borough alone.
Urine testing of children who lived in that area found that five of 100 tested had elevated mercury levels — a percentage similar to the occurrence of lead poisoning in the same population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is following up this year with a larger study, of 250 children living in northern Manhattan and Brooklyn.
A study of pollution in New York Harbor by the New York Academy of Sciences estimated that mercury from cultural and religious practices totaled about 400 kilograms, or 880 pounds, a year. That equals the amount produced by coal-fired power plants, which rank nationally as the largest unregulated source of mercury pollution.
Sewage coming from a neighborhood in northeastern Manhattan showed excessive amounts of mercury, according to a new study by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Inhaled mercury is usually excreted through urine and feces.
New Jersey’s study of botanicas and apartment buildings was initiated at the recommendation of Wendroff, who alerted the state Task Force on Mercury in 2001 about the widespread use of mercury among certain ethnic groups. Wendroff, a former junior high school science teacher in Brooklyn, remembers the day in 1990 when his interest in the subject began.
“I was teaching a chemistry lesson on mercury, and I asked the kids if they knew what it was used for,” he says. “I expected them to say thermometers. One of the kids says, ‘My mother uses it in Santeria.’“
The boy explained that she sprinkled it on the floor “to keep away the brujas,” or witches. The boy knew the botanica where she bought it, and agreed to bring some to school. Two days later, the boy showed up with a capsule.
Wendroff subsequently realized that the boy showed some signs of mercury poisoning.
Occupational exposure to mercury — among hatters in 19th century London, for example — causes a syndrome called erethism, characterized by anorexia, irritability, short-term memory loss, and dislike of being observed. “This kid had all four of them,” Wendroff says. “He would put his head on his desk and invert his loose-leaf notebook over it.”
The New Jersey study employed a Santeria priest from New Mexico to interview practitioners in Hudson County. He reported:
A Colombian santera “lamented the fact that it’s now more difficult to sell mercury … [She] says that mercury made up an important part of her sales in the past. She has sold mercury to other Colombians, Mexicans, Cubans, and North Americans. She keeps it in her house rather than the botanica and prefers to sell larger quantities as opposed to capsules.”
In another shop, owned by a Cuban and Puerto Rican couple, “Mercury capsules are very cheap in this botanica ($1.50). Their logic is that people won’t report them if they get a bargain.”
A Dominican santera “uses elemental mercury and red, yellow, and blue precipitados [mercury oxides] in secret Santeria rituals.” She told the researcher that “elemental mercury could be sprinkled for good luck or could be placed in a water goblet [with water and camphor].”
Those interviewed “were unaware of the hazards of mercury,” the report says.
They knew it was “bad to touch or play with, [but] no one knew about the dangers of mercury vapors or the possible effects of long term exposure. The only ‘hazard’ they mentioned was the legal trouble they thought you could get into if you were caught with mercury.”
The study also found mercury vapor was “significantly elevated” in 17 percent of the apartment buildings tested, says Alan Stern, a co-author and head of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s risk analysis bureau. The study didn’t identify a cause. It may be due to cultural use or something as simple as breaking a thermometer, he says.
Other studies have suggested that local laws be enacted to require that dwellings be tested for mercury — and buyers or tenants informed of the results — when they are sold, much as some states require radon or lead testing.
Routine testing of children’s mercury levels, as they are currently tested for lead, may be a good idea in some locales, researchers say.
“We want to protect people’s health, and that’s the bottom line,” Stern says. The goal “is to convince people that this is not a smart and healthy thing to do. If we do this in a clumsy way and drive this underground, then we’re not going to be helping anybody.”