GLRPPR: Projects Database
Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable
Promoting Pollution Prevention Through Information Exchange
About Us
E-Mail This Page
Funding Opps
Region 5 Project Summaries
Sector Resources
Topic Hubs™
Conferences & Training
Ask a Librarian
Mailing List

Projects Database

Health Hazard Of Ritual Use Of Mercury

Project Information

Award Amount:$21,006.00
Dollars Leveraged:$12,162.00
Start-End Dates:10/1/98-9/30/00
Description:Summary: The objectives of the project were to identify ritual uses of mercury in the Chicago area, determine mercury levels in residential air as a result of ritual mercury use, determine which uses of mercury results in greatest exposures, and determine if the ritual use of mercury is a public health hazard.

To determine health hazards associated with the different ritual uses, a study was designed that included recruiting individuals who use mercury for ritual purposes, sampling homes where mercury was used, administering household and exposure questionnaires, and sampling individuals for biomarkers of mercury exposure.

The ritual use of mercury has been prevalent in Hispanic communities for many years. It is commonly encountered in certain religious rituals of Esperitismo, a spiritual belief system native to Puerto Rico and Santeria, a Cuban-based religion. Promoters of mercury use claim that because mercury “flows smoothly” it provides good luck and, as a result of its slippery nature, prevents evil from sticking to the person. Individuals are frequently instructed to carry mercury in a pouch, purse, or amulet to benefit from its perceived powers. The following ritual uses of mercury were discovered during a literature search:
• Sprinkled around baby cribs or beds
• Worn in amulets around a person’s neck
• Carried in a purse or pouch
• Sprinkled in automobiles
• Burned in or on top of candles
• Added in cleaning solutions to cleanse dwellings
• Added to bath water
• Ingested (by infants)
• Added to perfume
• Added to folk medicines
• Added to open containers of wine or oil
• Added to cream lotion and rubbed into skin

Environmental Results/Products: .
Two focus groups with Hispanic community members where held in 1999 to discuss the ritual uses of mercury in the Hispanic communities. The focus group was attended by 28 individuals (1 male and 27 females). The ages of the participants ranged from 27 to 56 years old. Project staff identified that the reason why botanicas are so popular in these communities is because they are inexpensive (compared to traditional medical treatment) and accessible to the communities. The local clinics are not as accessible and are thought to be insensitive to the community needs. Botanica owners were viewed as more approachable and sensitive to Hispanic culture and beliefs. Participants also indicated that botanicas promise fast results from treatments and owners speak their language (Spanish)

In 1997, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) conducted a survey in 16 botanicas in Hispanic communities in the Chicago area including: in the Lower West side, Logan Square, Humboldt Park, West Town, Near West Side, South Lawndale. All 16 botanicas sold mercury in plastic capsules that had average weights of 14.16 grams of mercury. Due to the language barrier that existed, employees from Illinois Department of Hispanic Community Affairs (DHCA) agreed to administer questionnaires to occupants of the study residential units.

The questionnaires were administered to approximately 724 individuals between November 1998 and March 1999. Fourteen (14) women admitted to using mercury for ritual purposes, but refused to participate in any further study. The primary reason these women refused was, “they didn’t want their husbands finding out they were using it.”

Air sampling for airborne metallic mercury was planned for each residential unit recruited for the study. Carbon dioxide sampling was also planned for the purpose of calculating an air exchange rate. At the time of the air sampling, a representative from DCHA was scheduled to administer a household questionnaire to obtain specific information about the ritual use of mercury including amounts used, frequency, purpose of use, and locations. In addition, to the air sampling, the study design included the collection of biological samples (urine) from each occupant in the household.

The project proposal anticipated that 20 - 25 residential units would be sampled. Out of the 724 individuals contacted, seven women were interested in having their homes sampled after they were informed about the potential health effects associated with mercury exposure. Ultimately the homes were not sampled because consent was required from all occupants and there were problems associated with not keeping all family members informed.

Later in the study, Chicago Department of Public Health lead inspectors, who are required to enter homes and conduct housing inspections for lead when an elevated blood lead level is reported for a child less than six years of age, were asked to review the mercury questionnaire during their inspections between February 1999 and May 2001. None of the respondents to the questionnaire admitted to using mercury for ritual purposes.

Informational brochures about the dangers of mercury were distributed to the homes visited. Residents provided direct feedback on the education materials developed for the study. The fact sheet and pamphlets that were distributed for review and the residents in the control homes informed personnel from DHCA that all the information was important and in a format that was concise and easy to read.

Future studies should include public service announcements and a monetary incentive for participants should be considered. Monetary incentives are routinely offered by DCHA personnel for other programs in Chicago. A strategy needs to be developed to involve local church organizations because they have such a great influence in the communities. Focus groups should be organized to discuss recruitment with the key individuals from these local churches. In addition, the local citizens from Hispanic communities should be hired to assist with recruitment. These individuals would be viewed as more trustworthy to other local residents.


There are no reports associated with this project.

Funding Organizations

Below is a list of organizations with individual contacts that are funding this project.

U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office - Primary Contact

77 W Jackson Blvd
Chicago, Illinois 60604
There are no individuals in this organization
associated with this project.

Organizations Receiving Funding

Below is a list of organizations with individual contacts that are receiving funding for this project.

Illinois Department of Public Health - Primary Contact

525 W. Jefferson
Springfield, Illinois 62762
p: 217-782-4977
f: 217-782-3987
Individual Contacts
  • Tayseer Rehan

Associated Organizations

Below is a list of associated organizations that are NOT giving or receiving funding for this project.

Chicago Department of Public Health - Partner

2418 W Division St
Chicago, Illinois 60622
p: 312-744-8185

Department of Hispanic Community Affairs - Partner

401 South Clinton, Second Floor
Chicago, Illinois 60607
p: 312-793-4306
f: 312-793-7852

University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Public Health - Partner

1603 W. Taylor Street, SPH-PI
Chicago, Illinois 60612-4394
p: 312-996-6620


Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable (GLRPPR)
One East Hazelwood Drive Champaign, IL 61820
(217) 333-8940

University of Illinios Privacy Notice