16 September 2023, Quezon City. The toxics watchdog group EcoWaste Coalition sought the help of environmental authorities to halt the dangerous use of mercury purportedly to dispel the effects of black magic such as “kulam” or “barang.”
The group’s appeal for government intervention came on the heels of its discovery of liquid mercury in an unlabeled container that is offered for sale by some sidewalk vendors in Quiapo, Manila near the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene.
Sold for P300 per bottle alongside amulets, talismans, lucky charms and medicinal plants, mercury is claimed to have the power to block or counter curses and spells by “mangkukulam” in Tagalog or “mambabarang” in Bisaya (witches).
Prior to finding mercury among the items sold by amulet vendors, the group spotted online product listings for mercury, which, according to sellers, can also be “planted” into the skin.
People should not be lured into using such a poisonous substance as a ‘pamatay-bisa’ or antidote to acts of witchery, the EcoWaste Coalition said. “Toxic mercury has no known function in the human body and there is no level of mercury in the body that is deemed safe,” the group warned.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the use of mercury for cultural or religious reasons is a concern because ‘direct and prolonged exposure to mercury is a human health hazard and has an impact on the downstream environment,” and that “people using mercury for cultural uses are often unaware of mercury’s toxicity and associated risks.”
“Often the mercury vapor exposure from cultural use is second-hand, from magico-religious mercury use by a prior occupant of a dwelling,” UNEP said, adding “the storage, transport and handling of mercury for these purposes can impose risk by introducing opportunities for spills and vapor releases.”
“The most common exposure pathway is through inhalation of mercury vapors,” UNEP said. “This is of particular concern, especially in closed spaces.”
To address the problem of the use of mercury for cultural purposes, the EcoWaste Coalition requested the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – Environmental Management Bureau (DENR-EMB) to issue a Memorandum Circular clarifying that cultural uses of mercury such as for countering sorcery is prohibited.
According to UNEP, “prohibition on the sale of mercury can be effective in reducing mercury use for cultural purposes and is most effective with inspection follow-ups.”
The group likewise requested the DENR-EMB to consider the following recommendations:
— Reach out to communities selling and using mercury for cultural purposes and raise their awareness about mercury exposure risks.
— Investigate the source of liquid mercury being offered for sale by online sellers and Quiapo sidewalk vendors, and cut the supply chain.
— Coordinate with the City of Manila for the necessary action to stop the sale of liquid mercury in Quiapo.
— Direct online shopping sites to take down current listings for mercury use against sorcery or witchcraft, and to block similar listings in the future.
To stop mercury trade for cultural uses, the DENR-EMB was also requested to work with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to ensure compliance by online shopping platforms and online sellers, as well as with local government units for the monitoring of retail outlets in their areas of jurisdiction.
The above recommendations were communicated to the DENR-EMB through a letter sent last Thursday, September 14. DENR-EMB is the national focal point for the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a globally binding agreement that aims to protect human health and the environment from man-made emissions and releases of mercury and its compounds.
Kúlam is a type of Philippine witchcraft or sorcery. A mangkukulam is a person who knows how to do kúlam. The Filipino mangkukulam employs a doll to hurt her enemies. Because of her magic powers, whatever she does to a doll representing her target, happens to that person in real life. So if she uses a needle to prick the doll’s abdomen, the target person will experience stomach pains.
Barang (magic) is a malevolent use of sympathetic magic by Filipino witches.