The “Mercury Poisoning Project” began in June of 1989 when I (Arnold Wendroff) was a science teacher at Junior High School 51 in Brooklyn, NY. While teaching a 9th grade chemistry lesson on mercury to a special education class of “learning disabled” children, I began by asking if anyone knew what mercury was used for? An ethnically Puerto Rican boy, Jaime R. answered “My mother uses it in Santeria.”
I asked Jaime what she did with the mercury, and he responded that she sprinkled it on the floor to keep away brujo [witches/sorcerers]. Both my curiosity and concern was aroused. The research for my doctorate in the sociology of medicine was on traditional medicine, magic, sorcery and religion in Malawi, a small country in southeastern Africa. This had given me some familiarity with Santeria, a “syncretistic” Afro-Cuban / Spanish-Catholic religion. My undergraduate studies in biology and geology had left me with an awareness of the toxic nature of mercury.
My curiosity aroused, I asked Jaime where his mother obtained the mercury? He told the class that she purchased it at a local botanica, a shop selling botanical and folk medicines, as well as paraphernalia for religions such as Santeria, Voodoo, Espiritismo, etc.. I later asked him to purchase a sample of mercury for me, and a few days later he brought to class a colorless gelatin capsule partially full of what was evidently mercury, and having a gross weight of ~7.2 grams. I refunded the $1 that he had paid for it, and paid a visit to the botanica that weekend. The woman behind the counter acknowledged that she sold mercury, and by coincidence, Jaime’s mother was sitting in the botanica, chatting with the saleswoman, recognized me, and confirmed his earlier assertion that she ritualistically sprinkled mercury on her apartment’s floor.
I initially assumed that the sale of mercury by this botanica, and the use of mercury by sprinkling it on floors were not isolated phenomena. I further assumed that many of the magico-religious uses of mercury would result in the contamination of dwellings with mercury vapor, and that the resulting exposures to mercury vapor were certain to be toxic.
A year later, after Jaime had graduated and gone to high school, my reading in the mercury toxicology literature suggested that he had been suffering from the syndrome of erethism, a form of chronic mercury poisoning, exhibiting the symptoms of elevated irritability, anorexia, short-term memory loss, and a peculiar dislike of being observed, manifested by his putting his head on his desk and covering it with his opened and inverted loose leaf notebook!
My initial 1989 assumptions of widespread ritualistic mercury sales and use have long been proven to be correct. However, seventeen years later, my further initial assumptions of widespread domestic mercury pollution and consequent widespread mercury poisoning have yet to be demonstrated. Few actual measurements of indoor air mercury vapor levels in occupied dwellings have been made in Caribbean and Latino communities, and most of those that have been made (by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection – see their December 2002 report under “Resources,”) were not in actual dwellings, but rather in unoccupied public hallways and vestibules. Government agencies have been fearful of finding significant mercury vapor contamination of dwellings as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s domestic evacuation level for indoor mercury vapor is a mere 10 micrograms per cubic meter (10 mg/m3). In 2003 the de facto evacuation level was lowered to just 1 mg/m3.
A good synopsis of this multifaceted and controversial environmental health issue is in the paper “Magico-Religious Mercury Use in Caribbean and Latino Communities: Pollution, Persistence, and Politics” in the June 2005 issue of Environmental Practice, a copy of which is in the “Resources” section of this website.