The central government has restarted work to officially recognize sufferers of Minamata disease — this time under a new guideline that the Environment Ministry in March adopted ostensibly with the intention of recognizing more sufferers of Japan’s most serious pollution-induced illness, caused by organic mercury.
Originally Minamata disease was found among people who ate fish contaminated with organic mercury contained in liquid waste released from a Chisso Corp. factory into Minamata Bay in Kumamoto Prefecture.
The work to recognize Minamata disease sufferers has been in a state of confusion for many years because the government would not change its harsh criteria adopted in 1977, despite the Supreme Court’s rulings in later years that adopted relaxed standards for recognizing plaintiffs as victims of the disease so they could qualify for compensation.
The government should carry out the recognition work in a fair and equitable manner so that as many people as possible qualify to receive official recognition and relief.
Under the 1977 criteria for screening people who applied for official recognition as disease sufferers, only those who suffered from a combination of four symptoms caused by mercury poisoning — sensation disturbances plus motor disturbances, including visual field constriction — could be recognized as sufferers. Criteria were much more severe than the earlier ones. From 1969, those who displayed only a single symptom had been recognized as Minamata disease victims.
The 1977 criteria turned out to be so strict that nearly 80 percent of the applications were turned down. Those who were officially recognized as sufferers under those criteria number fewer than 3,000. They are entitled to a one-time allowance of ¥10 million to ¥18 million, a monthly pension and financial support for medical treatment.
People who have symptoms exclusive to Minamata disease but have not been recognized as Minamata disease sufferers strongly criticized the criteria, pointing out that both recognized and unrecognized victims suffered from the damage that organic mercury caused to the central nervous system and that excluding unrecognized victims from the relief scheme was unjust. Many of unrecognized sufferers resorted to lawsuits to try to win damages.
In an attempt to expand the scope of relief for unrecognized Minamata disease victims, the government in 1995 worked out a political settlement that included a lump-sum payments of ¥2.6 million and medical allowances to such sufferers. Since the application period for the ad hoc measure was only six months, it covered only some 11,000 disease victims.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court ruled in October 2004 that people whose symptoms were not as severe as those suffered by officially recognized Minamata disease patients should be recognized and entitled to relief if their symptoms are found to have been caused by the organic mercury-caused disease.
Even after the Supreme Court made this ruling, the government would not loosen or abolish the 1977 criteria. Thus many people remained unrecognized as Minamata disease sufferers despite having symptoms attributable to the disease.
To help these victims, the government took a second step: It had the Diet enact a special law, effective in 2009, under which each unrecognized disease victim was entitled to a uniform ¥2.1 million in relief and medical allowances.
At the end of July 2012, the government stopped accepting applications for the relief under the special law, although this decision was strongly opposed by Minamata disease victims. By that time, more than 65,000 people had applied. More than 600 people who applied but were rejected have filed lawsuits.
As efforts to recognize Minamata disease sufferers were not making progress, the Supreme Court in April 2013 handed down an important ruling: People who exhibit only a sensation disturbance should be recognized as Minamata disease sufferers if it is clear that they had habitually eaten fish that turned out to be contaminated with organic mercury.
Apparently influenced by this ruling, the Environment Ministry adopted a new guideline for recognizing Minamata disease sufferers in March 2014 while retaining the 1977 criteria. Under the guideline, people who display only sensation disorders may be recognized as Minamata disease sufferers.
But they must produce documents showing that they lived or stayed in areas where contaminated fish was habitually eaten. They must explain how they obtained the fish, their dietary habits — including how long they habitually ate contaminated fish — and their family and occupational history. The organic mercury concentration in their body also is checked. Because nearly six decades have passed since the first case of the disease was discovered in Minamata in 1956, it may be very difficult for victims to furnish this data.
There are other problems with the new guideline. It is written on the assumption that disease symptoms appear between one month and a year after contaminated fish is eaten. Sometimes symptoms have appeared much later. The ministry also has been criticized for narrowing the range of areas where contaminated fish could have been habitually eaten.
It is believed that many Minamata disease victims living around the Yatsushirokai Sea — of which Minamata Bay is a part — have not come forward, fearing social stigmatization. Some may not realize they have Minamata disease symptoms.
While it is important to carry out the recognition work for people who have applied, central and local governments also must conduct comprehensive medical exams of local residents to locate as many victims of the disease as possible.
To provide relief to Minamata disease victims, who are said to number between 100,000 and 200,000, the central government should not rule out the need to abolish the 1977 criteria as well as the April 2014 guideline, and to come up with new criteria and a new relief plan.
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