The "Cultural Uses of Mercury" program provides local health departments (LHDs) with information and technical resources to assist in preventing mercury poisoning, with an emphasis on culturally specific uses of mercury.
Mercury is a toxic heavy metal. Exposure can cause serious health effects including respiratory problems (from short-term exposure) and neurological disorders and possibly death (from long-term exposure). Although efforts have reduced certain exposure routes—for example, thermometers no longer contain mercury—a segment of the population uses mercury regularly. In many urban areas in the U.S., mercury use is deeply embedded in the culture [level G – Cultural Competencies] of various Afro-Latin-Caribbean-Brazilian-based traditions, including Santeria, Palo, Voodoo, and Espiritismo, and it is available for purchase in stores known as botanicas. Mercury is reportedly used for attracting luck, love, or money and for protecting against evil. Practices include wearing amulets of mercury, sprinkling mercury on the floor (near doorways or around a baby’s crib), or adding it to a candle or oil lamp. In addition, some members of the Hispanic community take mercuryinternally as a home remedy for gastro-intestinal disorders.
Cultural use of mercury can be challenging for the public health community to address, as it tends to be practiced privately among communities that are often resistant to government intervention. Consequently, mercury-poisoning cases are potentially underreported, and many LHDs are not aware that the practice is taking place in their communities. LHDs that have attempted to address culturally specific mercury use have found that education efforts have not necessarily been effective and, according to one study, could have the negative impact of further alienating the target audience (Riley et al. 2001).
A number of federal, state, and local agencies have acted over the past decade to gain a better understanding of the problem and to reduce mercury exposure from cultural practices. A few such actions have included information gathering, meetings with community groups, production and distribution of health alerts and outreach materials, and investigation of complaints.
In order to help LHDs address this emergent issue, NACCHO is developing a new program with funding provided by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry). The Cultural Uses of Mercury program provides LHDs with information and technical resources to assist in preventing mercury poisoning, with an emphasis on culturally specific uses of mercury. This project will enable LHDs to work with their community partners to research effective community collaboration and education approaches that will address culturally sensitive public health issues and, specifically, help prevent mercury poisoning.
For more information, download The Use of Mercury for Cultural and Religious Purposes FactSheet. This fact sheet provides an introduction to the issue of mercury as it is used in traditional practices, a summary of the agent''s health effects, and an overview of activities in which NACCHO and our partners are currently engaged regarding this topic.