NAIROBI – One spring day just over 60 years ago in Kyushu, a young girl was brought to the hospital by her anxious parents. She could barely walk, was slurring her words and suffering convulsions and seizures. Days later, her sister was also admitted with the same symptoms, and she was followed by a neighbor, and then dozens more people.
The city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, was gripped by an unexplained epidemic of a condition that ravaged the central nervous system. Doctors saw numb limbs twisted in pain, loss of speech, and then, all too frequently, coma and death. Animals were also hit: Birds had fallen from the sky, cats were also gripped by convulsions — prompting some to call the condition “dancing cat disease.”
Upstream, one of Japan’s most advanced factories had been dumping chemical waste into the bay. A sludge containing mercury had accumulated over time, and consumed by fish and shellfish. From there the poison found its way into the food chain and the staple, protein-rich foods of the coastal communities. It was several years before the precise cause of the epidemic was identified, but not before hundreds of lives were lost.
The Minamata incident will go down in history as one of the worst-ever industrial disasters, with the city giving its name to the crippling, deadly condition.
But 60 years on, its suffering and stigma is being transformed into action: The entry into force of the Minamata Convention. It’s a global treaty to protect human health and the environment, and something that will help prevent a repeat of Minamata’s suffering. It is the first new global convention on the environment and health adopted for close to a decade, and will tackle the entire life cycle of mercury, considered by the World Health Organization as one of the top 10 chemicals of major health concern.
I’ll be in Minamata on Saturday (July 1) to celebrate the imminent entry into force of the convention. The convention will officially take effect in August, and the first Conference of the Parties — with the theme “Make Mercury History” — will follow from Sept. 24 to 29 in Switzerland. It will oblige governments to reduce mercury use, address contamination sites and ensure health care for victims of mercury poisoning.
But why is continued action even necessary? Surely a problem from the middle of the last century has been resolved by now? Regrettably, this is not the case, and hence the need to a coordinated, global approach to the issue.
In developing countries across the globe, mercury is being used in small-scale, artisanal gold mining — and incidences of horrific mercury poisoning are being reported today in the Philippines.
Mercury can also be emitted from coal-fired power plants, adding another dangerous element to the already suffocating pollution that blights many cities of the world. It can be spewed out by the incineration of waste, and transported over distances far removed from its original emission source. It is part of some industrial production processes. It’s used in circuitry for switches, dentistry — for fillings — and even cosmetics, such as the skin-lightening soaps and creams popular in many Asian and African nations.
There’s no safe level of exposure, and everyone is at risk when mercury is released without safeguards because the dangerous heavy metal has spread to the remotest parts of the Earth. Children and newborn and unborn babies are most vulnerable, along with populations who eat contaminated fish, like those at Minamata 60 years ago. Then there are those who use mercury at work, and people who live near a source of mercury pollution, or in colder climates where the dangerous heavy metal tends to accumulate.
The fact is that we don’t want to live in a world where putting on makeup, powering our phones and even buying a wedding ring depends on exposing millions of people to the risk of mercury poisoning. In addition, we have solutions that are as obvious as the problem itself. There are alternatives to many of mercury’s current applications, such as newer, safer industrial processes.
The convention shows that big and small countries can all play a role — as can the man and woman in the street, just by becoming aware, changing what they buy and use. And that will be a fitting tribute to Minamata: a legacy of positive action.
Erik Solheim is executive director of the United Nations Environment Program.