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Incorporating Ethnographic Methods in Multidisciplinary Approaches to Risk Assessment and Communication: Cultural and Religious Uses of Mercury in Latino and Caribbean Communities

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The potential risk from cultural and religious practices involving mercury in Latino and Caribbean communities raises central methodological and ethical questions for risk assessment and risk communication. Here, specific cultural practices unfamiliar to most risk professionals carry significant inherent risks in the eyes of those professionals but not necessarily in the eyes of practitioners. Practitioners' past experience and history as targets of religious suppression and anti-immigrant sentiment create a reluctance to engage with researchers or public health officials in risk assessment or preventive risk communication efforts. The potential for the risk—in this case mercury contamination in dwellings—to extend beyond the practicing community to future occupants adds to public health concern. Understanding the risks of these practices requires both an understanding of the cultural and political context, beliefs, and behaviors of mercury users and an understanding of the fate and transport of mercury in typical use scenarios. In this study, we employed ethnographic methods (interviews and participant observation) to understand beliefs and behavior about mercury use as well as quantitative modeling and measurement to estimate and assess potential exposures. This represents a new methodology tailored to situations in which traditional activities or observances that are integral components of cultural identity pose risks in and of themselves. Our findings indicate that there are different types of mercury use stemming from different cultural and religious traditions that result in different levels of exposure. Many of the mercury uses that can result in the highest exposures to mercury vapors have previously been attributed to the religious tradition of Santeria, but appear instead to have their roots outside of the religion.

Keywords: Culture; ethnography; exposure assessment; mercury; risk communication

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: New Mexico State University, Sociology and Anthropology, Las Cruces, NM, USA. 2: Santero, Las Cruces, NM, USA.

Publication date: October 1, 2006


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