The Minamata story
Posted by: Panchito ()
Date: November 23, 2013 12:37PM
"As soon as the investigation identified a heavy metal as the causal substance, the wastewater from the Chisso plant was immediately suspected as the origin. The company's own tests revealed that its wastewater contained many heavy metals in concentrations sufficiently high to bring about serious environmental degradation including lead, mercury, manganese, arsenic, thallium and copper plus the chalcogen selenium. Identifying which particular poison was responsible for the disease proved to be extremely difficult and time consuming. During the years 1957 and 1958, many different theories were proposed by different researchers. At first, manganese was thought to be the causal substance due to the high concentrations found in fish and the organs of the deceased. Thallium, selenium and a multiple contaminant theory were also proposed but it was not until March 1958, when visiting British neurologist Douglas McAlpine suggested that Minamata symptoms resembled those of organic mercury poisoning, that the focus of the investigation centered on mercury.
In February 1959, the mercury distribution in Minamata Bay was investigated. The results shocked the researchers involved. Large quantities of mercury were detected in fish, shellfish and sludge from the bay. The highest concentrations centred around the Chisso factory wastewater canal in Hyakken Harbour and decreased going out to sea, clearly identifying the plant as the source of contamination. Pollution was so heavy at the mouth of the wastewater canal that a figure of 2 kg of mercury per ton of sediment was measured: a level that would be economically viable to mine. Indeed, Chisso did later set up a subsidiary to reclaim and sell the mercury recovered from the sludge.
Hair samples were taken from the victims of the disease and also from the Minamata population in general. In patients the maximum mercury level recorded was 705 ppm (parts per million), indicating very heavy exposure and in non-symptomatic Minamata residents the level was 191 ppm. This compared to an average level of 4 ppm for people living outside the Minamata area.
On November 12, 1959, the Ministry of Health and Welfare's Minamata Food Poisoning Subcommittee published its results:
"Minamata disease is a poisoning disease that affects mainly the central nervous system and is caused by the consumption of large quantities of fish and shellfish living in Minamata Bay and its surroundings, the major causative agent being some sort of organic mercury compound." "
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