Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Friday issued the first formal apology by a prime minister for the state’s failure to deal properly with Minamata disease, one of the worst pollution-caused maladies and one that erupted during the nation’s speedy economic growth of the 1950s.

“The government feels a deep responsibility and offers a frank apology for failing to take appropriate steps for a long period of time or to prevent the spread of Minamata disease,” said Koizumi’s statement, which was read out by Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe.

The apology comes just ahead of Monday’s 50th anniversary of the first recognized report of the disease, caused by environmental mercury poisoning by Chisso Corp.

“We should never allow pollution-related diseases to occur in the future,” Koizumi told reporters later in the day.

As of the end of March, 2,955 people were recognized as having contracted the disease, according to the Environment Ministry. Of them, 2,009 have died.

The Supreme Court ruled in October 2004 that the government shared responsibility for the disease. It also broadened the criteria for recognizing victims set by the government in 1977.

Abe, who read the the prime minister’s statement at a news conference, indicated the government would not change its criteria.

However, he said the government would have to take “firm measures” to respond to criticism that medical and financial relief for the victims has been too slow.

The disease was caused by poisoning from mercury-contaminated waste water being dumped at Chisso’s synthetic resin factory in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture.

On May 1, 1956, a local public health center received a report that four people were suffering from an unexplained brain malady.

It was only discovered later that the chemical maker had been poisoning the environment with the mercury-filled water.

Minamata disease has killed and maimed thousands of people, and has led to an unusually high number of birth defects in the area.

A group of people the state has refused to recognize as having Minamata disease filed a damages suit last October against the central and Kumamoto Prefectural governments and Chisso.

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