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Minamata Disease Battle Bore Pressure on Industrial Polluters to Clean Up - 2003-08-14

Industrial pollution is a major health concern around the world, especially in developing countries, where laws to prevent the spread of toxic waste are inadequate. Japan has won praise for its clean technology, but not before a major health crisis from industrial pollution had taken a heavy toll.

At the end of World War II, Minamata City, located in Southwestern Japan, was a well-established but poor community of factory workers, trades people and fishermen.

The cobalt blue waters of Minamata Bay were a vital source of food, providing fish for tens of thousands of local residents.

Many people worked at the huge Chisso Corporation chemical factory - the city's largest employer. What they did not know was that the factory was dumping tons of toxic mercury compounds into the bay.

In the late 1940s, a debilitating illness began to affect the townspeople. The disease damaged the central nervous system, causing numbness of the hands, excruciating headaches and impaired balance.

Because its victims moved awkwardly, the illness was at first called "dancing cat sickness." There was no cure. All local doctors could do was try to alleviate their patients' pain.

The sick were ostracized, because people mistakenly assumed the illness was contagious. It was not until 1957, 11 years after the disease first appeared, that doctors eventually traced the source to consumption of mercury-tainted fish from the bay. Health officials changed the name to Minamata Disease.

As Dr. Toshihide Tsuda of Okayama University in Western Japan explains, the Japanese government was purposely slow in reacting to the disease.

"The government did not want to officially recognize the disease," he said. "At the time, Chisso Corporation was producing 70 to 80 percent of Japan's plastic materials. Japan's plastics industry would have suffered, if Chisso's operations were halted. The drainage of mercury from the factory did not stop for more than 12 years, when a cleaner production process was finally invented."

Aileen Mioko Smith, co-author of the book, Minamata, and head of Japan-based environmental group Green Action, says everyone involved - the Chisso Corporation, local authorities and the central government - all refused to acknowledge the source or the scope of the problem.

"When the pollution first occurred, the company rerouted the pipe where the waste water was released. They rerouted it to a different area, and the disease spread that way," she said. "What the Japanese government did is, they knew the bay was polluted, but they said they cannot prove that all the fish in Minamata Bay were contaminated, so they said they would take no counter-measures to stop the contamination of the fish. That spread the illness and made the problem much, much worse."

The new pipe spread the mercury even more broadly, and soon the illness was attacking people 15 kilometers away from Minamata City. Doctors say as many as 200,000 people were eventually affected. Thousands were too sick to work. Hundreds were hospitalized and died. Children whose mothers ate the tainted fish while pregnant were born with a range of birth defects. Many perished before they were teenagers.

Half a dozen class action suits against Chisso and the Japanese government were eventually settled out of court, with most victims receiving about $22,000. One suit is still pending with Japan's Supreme Court.

A number of countries have experienced similar mercury poisoning, which is now referred to routinely as Minamata Disease, no matter where it occurs.

Okayama University's Dr. Tsuda notes that Japan's tragedy did have the positive effect of influencing law on industrial emissions.

"The industrial situation is much better now. Companies handle chemicals more cautiously and safely, and the government monitors them," he said. "What is needed to prevent cases like this is, when an unknown illness is discovered, governments need to identify the cause swiftly and take measures."

Aileen Mioko Smith of Green Action says Japanese manufacturers now follow strict environmental and public health laws, partly due to public pressure. But she says Japanese companies manufacturing goods overseas still can generate potentially harmful industrial pollution, although not from mercury compounds, which are no longer in use.

Japanese companies are manufacturing goods in China, the Philippines and Indonesia. Still, Ms. Smith says she is optimistic that over time, those governments will enforce stricter laws on industrial pollution to protect what might be considered any country's most valuable asset: the health of its citizens.

This is part of VOA's series of reports on World Health