Health :: Ritualistic use of toxic mercury by Voodoo followers

Ritualistic use of toxic mercury by followers of Voodoo and other religions is dangerous but regulating it could drive the practice underground and possibly violate U.S. guarantees of freedom of religion, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Thursday.

Mercury can be worn in amulets, sprinkled on the floor, or added to an oil lamp as part of some Latino and Afro-Caribbean practices including Santeria, Palo, Voodoo, and Espiritismo, according to the EPA’s inspector general.

Some practitioners believe that the mercury, which forms tiny droplets in liquid form, can attract love, luck or riches, and even ward off evil, the report said.

But mercury’s toxic effects are pronounced in the nervous systems and brains of exposed children, and can damage organs and cause seizures in adults.

“Mercury vapors resulting from ritual uses can pose a health risk,” the EPA said. “Persons involved in such rituals should be aware of these risks.”

There could be a legal basis for the EPA to regulate mercury use, but “starting the process to establish such regulations would drive the practice underground,” EPA staff said.

Staff also warned that “restricting the use of mercury might be challenged as a violation of the First Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees U.S. religious freedoms, among other things.

EPA staff decided to study the issue after the Mercury Poisoning Project in February 2005 warned of “widespread mercury contamination in Latino and Caribbean homes in the United States as a result of rituals.”

Completing the study cost about $62,274, according to Bill Roderick, acting inspector general at the EPA.

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