Sunday, February 11, 2007

Japan's Second Minamata Outbreak

Note: On March 13, 2007, two male residents of Niigata City were added to the number of those afflicted with Minamata Disease.
The pictures show the lower reaches of the Agano River, which empties into the Sea of Japan in eastern Niigata City. The headwaters of the Agano are rise in neighboring Fukushima, and the mountains along the prefectural boundary are faintly visible in the photo at center. Forty years ago few would have dared fish here, for the Agano was the scene of Japan's Second Minamata Disease outbreak. The world's first documented case of methyl mercury poisoning of humans through foodchain contamination had occurred years earlier in Kumamoto, a prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu. In that case, the Chisso Corporation was dumping contaminated wastewater into nearby waterways, resulting in the poisoning of fish and shellfish in Minamata Bay. Local inhabitants who consumed contaminated marine products later contracted the terrible neurological disorder that came to be known as Minamata Disease. Due in large part to the heroic efforts of photojournalist W.E. Smith, who moved to the area with his Japanese wife in order to document the tragedy, Minamata sufferers received an outpouring of sympathy from around the world. Smith himself was savagely beaten by thugs in the hire of Chisso, temporarily losing his hearing and suffering declining health thereafter.
The Showa Denko Chemical Corporation was the source of Niigata's Minamata outbreak. Located forty miles upstream from the mouth of the Agano, in Kanose Town, the chemical plant dumped polluted, untreated wastewater directly into the river. As had happened in Kyushu nearly a decade earlier, locals began to notice large fish kills, and stray cats showed symptoms of a strange distemper. Eventually, the inhabitants of downstream communities developed the classic symptoms of mercury poisoning, and doctors at Niigata University's Medical School promptly diagnosed Minamata Disease. Medical researchers from Kumamoto University were summoned to lend their expertise and experience, and Showa was quickly identified as the source of the pollution. Mirroring the Chisso Corporation's response, executives at Showa were uncooperative, even suggesting that the massive earthquake to hit Niigata City the previous year was somehow responsible for the outbreak, this despite full knowledge that its wastewater was highly toxic, being the effluent of a manufacturing process almost identical to that employed by Chisso. Obstruction and obfuscation were of no avail, however, but that must offer little consolation to the 690 victims of Showa's criminal negligence. I am unaware whether the executives of either corporation spent any time in prison, surely the only suitable place for them to complete the term of their wretched existence. Wikipedia is an oustanding source of comprehensive information about Minamata Disease.