Cultural Uses of Mercury in New Jersey: Research Project Summary



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Trenton, N.J. : New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Science, Research and Technology


This study has two components: 1. Interviews with practitioners of Santeria and related practices 2. Survey of air mercury levels in buildings located in Hudson County. Twenty-two Santeria “priests” (i.e., Santeros), practitioners and/or botanica owners in Hudson County, NJ, were interviewed to determine their knowledge and use of mercury. Of the 21 interviewed, 17 used mercury in some form. All the interviewees, however, denied recommending or endorsing sprinkling of mercury or recommending that clients use mercury on their own. This, however, does not preclude independent, or more cultural uses of mercury by individuals. While initial indications pointed toward Caribbean and/or AfroCuban mercury-related practices, seven of those using mercury in rituals were from Mexico, Central America, or South America. In addition, anecdotal information from interviewees suggests that informal practices with mercury may specifically be part of Dominican cultural practices. Measurements of mercury concentration in air were obtained in the hallways of 34, and in the entrance vestibules of an additional 33 multi-family apartment buildings in Union City and West New York (Hudson County), NJ, using a highly sensitive Lumex portable mercury analyzer. Comparison buildings in Montclair, NJ, were also analyzed. In Hudson County the maximum building hallway concentration (as a possible indicator of mercury use in apartments) was significantly greater than the mean outdoor concentration in 38% of the surveyed buildings. In two buildings the maximum hallway concentration exceeded the U.S.EPA’s Reference Concentration (RfC) guideline of 300 ng/m3 although levels were significantly decreased on subsequent visits. Elevated hallway levels appear to result from specific apartments. These results suggest higher concentrations of mercury vapor in apartments. These results are consistent with intentional mercury use inside at least some of the buildings surveyed, but may also be consistent with recent data on indoor background levels resulting from historic spills.


Prepared by Alan H. Stern, Dr.P.H, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Science, Research and Technology, UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Piscataway, NJ, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, Piscataway, NJ, Picker Engineering Program. Smith College, Northampton, MA, Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology, New Mexico State Univ. Las Cruces, NM, New Mexico State Univ.; Santero and Hudson Regional Health Commission, Secaucus, NJ


New Jersey