Bad for What Ails You
Clouds of smoke billow out of the door when you enter the Botanica Papa Chango in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A pungent mix of sage and frankincense fumes away in a censer on the front counter, while in the back, a row of nervous customers await their consultation with Obaike, the in-house santero, or spirit doctor. For $30, the doctor will conduct a comprehensive “spiritual reading.” Whether you’ve got bad luck, love problems or a pesky evil spirit meddling in your affairs, the santero will know what to do.
With the sounds of Cuban Santeria devotional music throbbing in the background, the doctor makes his diagnosis. The tools of divination are diverse—sea shells, a glass of water, a cigar. It could be that rum is involved, too, since a near-empty bottle sits on the floor nearby.
Once the santero gets a sense of the problem, he prescribes a “spiritual bath.” The ingredients for this “bath” vary widely depending on your particular problem, but devotional candles to various saints and gods are often involved, as are a range of home cleansing products and herbal concoctions. The acrid smoke of Peruvian Cat’s Claw and achiote leaves might drive away one evil spirit, while a good floor scrub might deter another.
Arnold P. Wendroff, Ph.D
I’ve got a whole mess of problems I could take up with the santero, but I’m here in search of azogue, highly toxic mercury or quicksilver, which is traditionally prescribed by santeros for various problems and is an ingredient in some of those “spiritual baths.”
According to the Brooklyn-based Mercury Poisoning Project, followers of the Caribbean-based religions Santeria, Espiritismo and Voodoo, who believe that mercury attracts good and repels evil, expose the heavy metal in open containers, burn it in candles, mix it in perfume and—in one of the most problematic uses—sprinkle it around their homes and cars. Even more alarmingly, some santeros prescribe ingested mercury for infants with empacho, or constipation, believing that the mercury will dislodge food blockages. Arnold Wendroff, the scientist who heads the Mercury Poisoning Project, describes ingested mercury as “a threat to an infant’s developing brain.”
A Manhattan-based santero priestess describes mercury as “a magnet that brings luck and love.” Another adds that mercury “speeds up magic spells” and “allows spirits to travel over water.” Ritual mercury is typically sold by botanicas in capsules without warning labels at a price between $1 and $2. The sale of unlabeled mercury is banned by both federal law and the New York City health code, but that didn’t stop 99 of 115 botanicas from selling it in a 1990 survey. In 1996, 29 percent of the ritual experts consulted in another survey recommended mercury be sprinkled around the home, and two percent thought it should also be sprinkled in cars or ingested. Sprinkled mercury will result in an exposure level dramatically higher than is considered safe. The minimal risk level for chronic mercury vapor inhalation is 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter, but a contaminated Connecticut apartment was found to have 40 micrograms per cubic meter in 1996.
New York State Senator Malcolm Smith has called for new federal, state and local crackdowns on unlabeled mercury sale, and the state passed a resolution to that effect last year. “While exposure to mercury vapor is dangerous for anyone, children—who often crawl or play on the floor—are at particular risk,” Smith says. New York’s Health Department and Hartford, Connecticut’s Hispanic Health Council distribute educational guides explaining mercury dangers, and studies are underway to determine children’s mercury exposure levels.
At Botanica Papa Chango (named after the African Yoruba spirit-god Shango, God of Fire, Thunder, Lightning and Passions), no azogue is to be had. “You might check Home Depot,” I’m advised. “Or the Bronx, maybe.” The Bronx might be a good place to look, because according to a Mercury Poisoning Project report, between 500 to 3,000 pounds of ritual mercury are distributed there every year.