Minamata disease

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Minamata disease (水俣病 Minamata-byō), sometimes referred to as Chisso-Minamata disease (チッソ水俣病 Chisso-Minamata-byō), is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Symptoms include ataxia, numbness in the hands and feet, general muscle weakness, narrowing of the field of vision and damage to hearing and speech. In extreme cases, insanity, paralysis, coma, and death follow within weeks of the onset of symptoms. A congenital form of the disease can also affect fetuses in the womb. Minamata disease was first discovered in Minamata city in Kumamoto prefecture, Japan in 1956. It was caused by the release of methylmercury in the industrial wastewater from the Chisso Corporation's chemical factory, which continued from 1932 to 1968. This highly toxic chemical bioaccumulated in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea, which when eaten by the local populace resulted in mercury poisoning. While cat, dog, pig, and human deaths continued over more than 30 years, the government and company did little to prevent the pollution.

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  • "The defendant's factory was a leading chemical plant with the most advanced technology and facilities. As such, the defendant should have diligently researched the relevant literature and should have assured the safety of its wastewater... Also the defendant should have cast a watchful eye on the environmental conditions of the area... Defendants should have made sure that no harm whatsoever came to the residents in the area... It would have been possible to foresee the risk from the discharged water... The defendant could have prevented the occurrence of Minamata disease or at least have kept it at a minimum. We cannot find that the defendant took any of the precautionary measures called for in this situation whatsoever... We cannot find even one measure taken by the defendant that was either adequate or satisfactory... The presumption that the defendant had been negligent from beginning to end in discharging wastewater from its acetaldehyde plant is amply supported. Even if the quality of wastewater was within legal and administrative standards and the facilities and methods of treatment... were superior to those of other factories in the same industry, it is not enough to overcome this presumption... The defendant cannot escape liability for negligence..."
    • The court's verdict in the 1969-1973 lawsuit filed against Chisso by the Litigation Group of Minamata disease patients. (p248).
  • "Minamata disease is a disease of the central nervous system, a poisoning caused by long-term consumption, in large amounts, of fish and shellfish from Minamata Bay. The causative agent is methyl mercury. Methyl mercury produced in the acetaldehyde acetic acid facility of Shin Nihon Chisso's Minamata factory was discharged in factory wastewater, contaminating fish and shellfish in Minamata Bay. It is recognised that the disease occurred when residents of the area consumed fish and shellfish containing methyl mercury that had concentrated in their bodies. Minamata disease patients last appeared in 1960, and the outbreak has ended. This is presumed to be due to the fact that consumption of fish and shellfish from Minamata Bay was banned in the fall of 1957, and the fact that the factory had waste-treatment facilities in place from January 1960."
    • The official conclusion by the Ministry of Health and Welfare issued on September 26, 1968 into the cause of Minamata disease.
  • "The word ‘citizens’ used in the call for the meeting is significant. From the time Minamata disease first became an issue, up to the present, in such contexts it has meant not all residents of the city but only those who are not directly involved. In other words, in excludes Minamata disease victims, fishing families, and company employees..."
    • Timothy S. George on the democratization of Japan through Minamata disease, Minamata: Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan Harvard University Asia Center and Harvard University Press: 2001. p. 93.
  • "It is the pain of the still-necessity humility and obsequiousness toward authorities who have done nothing to help them, added to the suffering caused by the pollution, that makes the protesters heroes..."
    • George calls the victims heroes because despite all they endured, there were still some who would not give up. p. 90.
  • "The importance of the court victory for the patients in the Trial Group went beyond financial compensation. To them, the court victory meant recognition that their complaints were just and that they were owed restitution by a system that had no right to exclude them."
    • George on Compensation. p. 249.
  • "[f]irst, direct negotiations with the company would be attempted; if they failed, the society would seek mediation. Only as a last resort, if mediation failed, would they sue."
    • George on suing as a last resort. p. 191.
  • "an official of the Minamata Chamber of Commerce wrote to the editor of the Kumamoto nichinichi shinbun: The truth of this frightful disease is know throughout the world through reports on the miserable situation of the patients, but no concrete measures have been taken to elimination the cause… The fishers, utterly dependent on compensation from Nitchitisu, have no rice for today, much less tomorrow. If bad sludge still remains why have the authorities and Nitchitsu made no serious attempts to remove it? At this state one action is more important than 10,000 words denying responsibility."
    • George on public opinion. p. 138.
  • "In sum, then, despite the formal legal and institutional infrastructure, 'postwar democracy' as defined and practiced by Japanese citizens and exemplified by responses to Minamata disease incident has remained quite ad hoc: it is creative, exciting, and full of tools for citizens to use but always dependent on continual definition and redefinition in practice. Minamata has left a legacy not of regularized procedures and institutions for expanded pluralism but of possibilities."
    • George on the limitations and future of democratizing Japan. p. 286.

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