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30 Years After Mercury Poisoning at Minamata : Ecological Disaster at Japan Village Leaves Legacy of Suffering

May 10, 1987|MICHAEL WEISSKOPF | The Washington Post

MINAMATA, Japan — Shinobu Sakamoto struggles every morning to button her blouse. She manages fitfully to reach her mouth with most of her breakfast rice.

Then she sets forth to work, walking in tortuous, jerky movements and contemplating, she said in badly slurred speech, "what it must be like to run, to feel free."

Each painful step by the 30-year-old woman symbolizes the legacy of human suffering in this bucolic, seaside town 30 years after the first and grimmest environmental disaster of modern times struck Minamata.

As much as Hiroshima echoes the horrors of atomic war, Minamata is a living monument to ecological apocalypse.

Mercury Poisoning

A generation has passed since tons of lethal mercury dumped into Minamata Bay by a giant chemical company traveled up the food chain, killing 700 people and crippling as many as 9,000 others here. Today Minamata is still staggering from the consequences.

The ghosts are everywhere in this town of 35,000--in hospitals, where palsied, brain-damaged victims wait to die; in workshops, where partially functional victims, like Sakamoto, strive for basic life skills; in courtrooms, where legal battles against the polluter rage on; in the harbor once bulging with fishing boats, now filled in with earth; in the depressed economy.

The area has lost a third of its population. Families have broken up, and there are deep social divisions over the way the disaster has shaped Minamata's fortunes. Then there is the lingering social stigma of a city whose very name is associated with gruesome disease and death.

When Minamata youths leave for other cities, they often conceal their place of origin to avoid bias. They have been rebuffed romantically by partners fearing the effects of their exposure on children. Prospective employers have rejected them for fear they may be contagious.

"At Hiroshima, the human destruction was painfully clear as soon as the bomb was dropped," Takanori Goto, a lawyer who represents Minamata victims, said. "At Minamata, the death and paralysis crept up slowly. The suffering is still going on."

Minamata. The very name sears the memory. More recent environmental crises in Bhopal, India, and in Chernobyl in the Soviet Union may eventually cause greater human and property loss.

But neither evokes the poignant images of Minamata--the twisted bodies of children; the cats hurling themselves into the bay to commit suicide; the anguished faces of survivors, and always the sea, the great source of civilization and livelihood here infelicitously transformed into the town's cup of poison.

When the cup spilled, it soiled more than Minamata. As many as 50,000 people who lived within 35 miles of the bay and who consumed its fish are said to have suffered at least mild symptoms of mercury poisoning.

Facing the Shiranui Sea on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, Minamata was for centuries a simple fishing and farming village. In 1907, the first factory opened here, a chemical company named Chisso Corp.

Chisso built a large factory in the middle of town and spewed its chemical wastes down a long, open pipe that drained into the bay half a mile downhill. The wastes contained mercury that had been used in the production of acetaldehyde, a component of plastics.

As the plastic industry boomed, up to 600 tons of mercury was dumped, most of it after World War II. In 1956, mercury levels in the bay exceeded safety standards 400-fold.

The effects surfaced in the 1950s. Fish bellied up. Sea birds dropped into the water and drowned. An outbreak of "cat dancing disease," in which cats staggered, salivated, convulsed and collapsed, wiped out Minamata's feline population.

In April, 1956, a 6-year-old girl hospitalized for imbalance and delirium became the first officially recognized human victim. Within months, another 50 cases were reported.

Mercury's dangers have been well-known since the ancient Romans sentenced their worst criminals to work in the quicksilver mines of Spain. But it took the catastrophe here to fashion the name "Minamata disease," which describes the host of central nervous system disorders caused by consumption of the heavy metal: blindness, seizures, numbness in extremities, tremors, paralysis, unconsciousness, congenital deformities and death.

Although a Chisso scientist is said to have secretly discovered the cause of the disease in 1959 by feeding the acetaldehyde effluent to cats, the company continued to dump mercury-laden wastes for another nine years while deaths and injuries mounted.

The first in a series of court verdicts found Chisso criminally negligent in 1973, forcing open the company's coffers for compensation. A flow of indemnities, medical payments and living allowances ordered by judges and government disability boards since then has cost the firm more than $500 million.

It is small compensation for residents of the Bright Water Garden Center, a sanitarium for the cruelest symbols of Chisso's betrayal.

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