When a Puerto Rican family moved into its new Rhode Island home last year, it didn't notice anything amiss about the first-floor apartment on a busy Cumberland street.
But within months, the family's 3-year-old daughter began getting blisters on her hands. Soon, the toddler's skin began to peel off, and her mother rushed her to the hospital.
Several days and tests later, doctors had a diagnosis: mercury poisoning. Urine samples showed mercury levels at four times the normal amount, and government officials speculate that the family's apartment was once sprinkled with mercury in a religious blessing.
Arnold Wendroff believes the case proves what he has argued for two decades -- that the religious use of mercury is a real danger to minority communities that follow Afro-Caribbean rituals.
The government has "been able to get away with not doing anything because it's conjecture," the Brooklyn-based activist said in a recent interview. "Here we have the best possible evidence that it's not conjecture, but it's real."
As U.S. EPA renews its focus on environmental justice, the agency faces new expectations that it will address a slew of environmental hazards that affect poor and minority communities. Some problems are obvious and irrefutable, such as a hazardous waste dump in a poor neighborhood, but others are controversial and more difficult to assess.
In the past, experts and government agencies have agreed that the religious use of mercury is a problem. But they have been debating for years whether it is enough of a problem to necessitate further studies and outreach.
EPA's Task Force on Ritualistic Uses of Mercury called in 2002 for more research, cautioning federal agencies to "balance these recommendations against other existing priorities." Meanwhile, leaders of the communities potentially affected by and large have said the problem is overblown.
To Wendroff, however, such uses of mercury drive to the heart of environmental justice: It affects an underserved community, is poorly understood and has received only intermittent attention.
"These organizations, these agencies have a mandate to address issues that appear to be problematic," said Wendroff, who has a doctorate in the sociology of medicine.
"It's a no brainer that if it's real, it's very serious."
Hunting the elusive 'azogue'
Wendroff is an encyclopedia of mercury poisoning knowledge, recalling from memory every study supporting his contention that certain minority populations are at risk from mercury in their homes.
He has studied the issue since 1989, when he was teaching science at a Brooklyn middle school and one of his students told him that his mother sprinkled mercury on their floor. Bought at a local "botanica," the mercury capsules were used in Santeria, a religion that originated with Caribbean slaves. Such practitioners know the substance by its Spanish name, "azoque."
Wendroff now believes his student was a victim of chronic mercury poisoning, exhibiting signs such as anorexia, short-term memory loss and a dislike of being observed. He has become a one-man advocacy machine, shooting off letters to lawmakers, hounding federal agencies, submitting articles to publications and using his own resources to ferret out evidence. He prints out every document -- including hundreds of emails -- and meticulously files them away.
His goal: convincing the government to do a study that measures the mercury vapor levels in Caribbean-Latino homes. He has no doubt that the findings would support his belief that such families -- especially children -- are at risk for health problems.
"No one wants to know. No one has been following up," he said. "They don't want to know because there's no bad guy with deep pockets other than government agencies."
EPA officials say otherwise, pointing to past studies and an outreach brochure that explains the dangers of mercury. A request for an interview was declined, but in a statement, the agency emphasized that it "works to reduce possible exposure to mercury, particularly in areas where potential for exposure is higher, i.e. in populations that rely on subsistence fishing or use mercury for ritualistic purposes."
But little movement has been made since 2005, when EPA commissioned a study on the ritualistic use of mercury, hiring Lockheed Martin to study mercury vapors after sprinkling between 2 and 15 grams in a trailer. Researchers found air concentrations spiked, and then decreased over time. But if it was disturbed or shaken -- as it might be in a home -- the levels rose again.
"Periodic application of a small amount of mercury for a sustained period of time within the same enclosure could lead to chronic mercury vapor exposure above the residential occupancy level," the report found. "The potential health risks of this practice were not explored in this study but warrant further investigation.
Whether such levels of mercury are found in a significant number of homes is a source of debate. A 1998 study of 100 children in New York City's South Bronx found that 5 percent had elevated levels in their urine of mercury. But researchers were unable to directly link those levels to ritualistic uses. One of the study's authors -- Philip Ozuah -- has since said that he does not think it's a wide-ranging problem.
In 2003, however, the consulting firm John Snow Inc. conducted a survey of Latino residents in Lawrence, Mass., visiting botanicas, beauty salons, community meetings, churches and various other locations. Of the 898 respondents, 344 reported that they either knew someone who used mercury for spiritual or health reasons or used it themselves. The firm's employees also found botanicas selling capsules that contained 9 grams of mercury.
"A larger, more definitive, citywide study would provide far better data about the extent of the problem," researchers wrote in the final report to Massachusetts' Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "While such as study would be interesting, we feel we have sufficient knowledge about the extent of mercury use to recommend that allocation of limited resources be used for prevention and remediation programs."
Into thin air
The recent case in Rhode Island provides the most direct example of the dangers of an indoor mercury spill. An official from Rhode Island's Department of Environmental Management found elevated levels throughout the home and noted in a report that "a spot in the master bedroom in front of the dresser was identified as the possible source of the mercury vapor."
The report also mentions the possibility of the apartment's former tenant blessing the house with mercury. But that tenant has since claimed that her daughter broke a mercury thermometer.
The mother of the affected 3-year-old is now seeking reparations from her landlord for his "failure to properly clean the premises prior to renting said apartment." Her lawyer, Yvette Boisclair, did not return a call requesting a comment.
Wendroff places the blame on the government, which he says has done a poor job in educating the public of the effects of mercury exposure. The medical community should also be more informed, he said; hospitals and clinics in communities that potentially use mercury should know to test for it in children exhibiting signs of exposure.
"Government agencies say, 'We did this, we did that, we informed them,'" he said. "The reality is the public at large has no clue, but, more important, the clinical community has no clue."
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