MINAMATA, KUMAMOTO PREF. – Shinobu Sakamoto was just 15 when she left home in the Kumamoto Prefecture fishing village of Minamata to go to Stockholm and tell the world of the horrors of mercury poisoning.
Forty-five years on, she has flown overseas again, this time to Geneva, to attend a gathering Sunday of signatories to the first global pact to rein in mercury pollution.
Sakamoto is one of a shrinking group of survivors from the 1950s industrial disaster that left tens of thousands of people poisoned after toxic wastewater from a Chisso Corp. chemical plant seeped into Minamata Bay, polluting the region’s food chain.
The waste contained a toxic organic compound, methylmercury, which can cause severe damage to the brain and nervous system, leading to what was eventually called Minamata disease. And that’s the name that was used in the U.N.-backed treaty that took effect last month.
The symptoms worsen with age, leaving some victims grappling with the question of who will care for them after their siblings and parents die; others face legal disputes.
“If I don’t say something, no one will know about Minamata disease,” said Sakamoto, one of the few born with the disease who is still able to talk.
“There are still so many problems, and I want people to know.”
Just 528 of the 3,000 certified victims of Minamata disease are alive, Environment Ministry data show. More than 20,000 have sought to be designated as victims, hoping for legal compensation.
“We need to take seriously the fact that there are still many people raising their hands,” said ministry official Koji Sasaki, referring to victims’ efforts to win recognition.
Born in a family of shipbuilders whose home overlooks Minamata Bay, Jitsuko Tanaka, 64, used to play on the beach with her older sister, picking and eating shellfish, unaware they were contaminated with mercury.
She was almost 3, and her sister 5, when they lost the ability to move their hands freely and walk properly, becoming the first to be identified as disease sufferers.
Tanaka’s older sister died at age 8. Tanaka survived, but the poisoning left her too weak to walk without support. A few years ago, her family says, even that became impossible.
As she lay motionless in bed, her brother-in-law, a fellow sufferer, said he worried about the patients who are left behind when family members die.
“After I die, who will take care of her?” asked Yoshio Shimoda, 69.
Sixty-one years since Minamata disease was identified in 1956, the grim struggles have eased for only a few.
Before the government specified methylmercury as its cause in 1968, the victims faced discrimination over fears it was contagious, which deterred many from seeking legal recognition.
People still send in decades-old umbilical cords to be checked for contamination, hoping for evidence to support their claims to be designated as victims, said Hirokatsu Akagi, director of Minamata’s International Mercury Laboratory.
Sakamoto, poisoned while still in the womb, considers it her duty to tell the world about the dangers of mercury.
“Minamata disease isn’t over; it’s not a thing of the past.”