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Tale of toxic morality

by Jeff Kingston

Minamata disease was named after a fishing port on the island of Kyushu where it was discovered in 1956. Chisso Corp. had been dumping methyl mercury directly into the bay since before World War II, but sharp increases in production in the early 1950s increased the flow of contaminating effluent. People and animals that ingested contaminated fish and shellfish suffered varying degrees of neurological damage. The polluting was not stopped until 1968 because the company, with the government’s complicity, denied and tried to cover up its role in creating one of Japan’s worst environmental disasters, one that became symbolic of the costs of relentless pursuit of economic growth.

NIIGATA MINAMATA DISEASE: Methyl Mercury Poisoning in Niigata, Japan, by Hisashi Saito. Niigata Nippo, 2009, 329 pp., ¥3,000 (paper)

The author is a doctor from Niigata, where a similar outbreak occurred in 1965 due to dumping of methyl mercury by Showa Denko into the Agano River. Saito played a key role in diagnosing and treating patients and pushing for accountability. The highly toxic compound contaminated the river fish and caused severe mercury poisoning — nearly 700 residents in Niigata are certified as suffering from Minamata disease, with a range of symptoms including general tiredness, numbness at the extremities, ataxia (gross lack of muscle coordination) and impaired speech, hearing and vision. As in Minamata, the outbreak in Niigata was first observed among cats living close to the river that appeared to go mad and move spastically before dying.

Saito recounts how, despite Showa Denko’s efforts to lay a false trail and divert attention from its responsibility, local doctors, prefectural authorities and citizen’s organizations mobilized to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak. In 1966 the Ministry of Health and Welfare traced the toxic waste to a Showa Denko factory in Kanose village. We read about how Showa Denko tried to discredit the evidence against it, and how it tried to lay blame with local farmers for agricultural chemical runoff after a 1964 earthquake. Saito recalls how Showa Denko planted evidence to implicate the farmers (which was quickly discredited by local police) and asserts that the central government initially tried to whitewash the findings of local researchers.

One major difference between the two cases was that many residents of Minamata were employed by Chisso, and many locals had a vested interest in keeping the pollution of their hometown under wraps. In Niigata, where many of the victims lived downstream from the polluting facility, there was no such subversion by local residents.

The first lawsuit in the Minamata case was not filed until 1969 — a delay of 13 years from the time the outbreak was confirmed. In Niigata, the time between confirmation in 1965 and the first lawsuit was just three years.

In 1971 the court ruled Showa Denko liable for damages ranging from about $28,000 for deceased and congenitally affected patients to a tenth of that figure, depending on the severity of symptoms. Women instructed to have abortions were given less than $900 in compensation.

Saito feels more could have been done to limit the damage. He writes that, following confirmation of the outbreak, “The Niigata Prefectural government did not officially ban fishing in the river, but asked fishermen to voluntarily refrain from eating the river fish, so that the government would not have to provide compensation for the loss.” One mother recalls, “During my pregnancy I had eaten a lot more river fish than usual in order to have a healthy baby. After giving birth, I had kept eating fish to breast-feed her. But all the fish I had eaten for my baby had been poisonous. To recall my feeling at that time, I felt more guilty than angry.”

Saito shares her anger, expressing outrage that Showa Denko agreed to settle a $1 billion lawsuit in 1990 on relatively generous terms with U.S. plaintiffs who had become ill after eating L-trytophan, a product marketed by the company as a health food. In contrast, Japanese victims of mercury poisoning received very little compensation and many patients were not even recognized as victims because of narrow, scientifically inadequate criteria.

The author also criticizes the July 2009 Diet agreement to provide financial relief to many of the victims of Minamata disease who have not previously received compensation. He argues that it fails to highlight corporate negligence, provides limited compensation, does not provide for a proper epidemiological study to assess the full extent of contamination and forces recipients to relinquish their rights to any further legal action.

This is not a book for casual readers, but for anyone who wants to get a sense of what it is like to be in the front lines of an environmental catastrophe, from the first suspicions to the frustration of denial, shifting responsibility and official insouciance toward poisoned patients, this is a compelling read.