Plunge Pontificates

A place for my thoughts.

email me

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Minamata Disease

This is a truly disturbing case of corporate negligence. Not just negligence, but pure contempt for human life. Profits mean all.
On May 1, 1956 in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, four people suffering an unusual disease showed up at the hospital run by Chisso Corp., which at the time employed nearly 60 percent of the town's workforce.

The hospital's head, Hajime Hosokawa, had seen similar symptoms in a patient who died in 1954. But as early as 1946, locals were speaking of the "dancing cat" disease, a malady that caused cats to convulse wildly before they died.

Fearing an epidemic, Hosokawa notified local health officials of this strange new illness. It was the first official announcement of what would become known as Minamata disease.

And a horrible disease it was. A Kumamoto University report from summer 1956 described just how quick it could kill.

In one case documented by researchers, a 28-year-old woman began complaining of numbness of fingers and impaired hearing and speech. Three days later, the numbness spread to her mouth. One week later, she was barely able to walk.

Three weeks after her initial complaints, she was hospitalized with muscle spasms and was occasionally howling. Six weeks later, she was semicomatose and could no longer feed herself -- her face and mouth had become paralyzed. Her body temperature rose, her pupils dilated and she howled nonstop.

Seven weeks after her initial complaint of numbness, she was dead.

In January 1957, Kumamoto University researchers announced that effluent containing heavy metals being dumped by Chisso Corp. into Minamata Bay was responsible for the disease. Two years later, they issued a more specific conclusion citing organic mercury in the effluent.
At this point, it might, might have been a mistake. The company could have taken care of the mess, cleaned it all up and compensated the victims. Well, after many more years and court battles, the company did end up compensating those that were injured or killed. End of the story though? No.
Six months after the agreement, Chisso resumed dumping mercury-tainted effluent into the bay.

The matter appeared to have been swept under the rug until 1965, when Niigata Prefecture suffered an outbreak of the disease.

The Niigata victims immediately filed a lawsuit against Showa Denko, the chemical company responsible, and emboldened the Minamata victims to take Chisso to court.

Twenty families in Kumamoto, representing 112 patients, filed suit against Chisso in the Kumamoto District Court. In 1973, the Kumamoto plaintiffs were victorious, and signed a compensation agreement with the polluter that gave each patient between 16 million yen and 18 million yen, plus medical expenses.

Six years later, Chisso's former president and Minamata factory manager were found guilty of negligent homicide and, after the Supreme Court rejected their appeal in 1988, were given suspended two-year sentences.
Can you believe that? Not only do they go back to dumping their toxic waste, they slapped the wrists of those responsible. What a travesty and a miscarriage of justice. 10s of thousands permanently injured or dead and these guys get a suspended sentence.

What a depressing story to return to after my trip. My heart goes out to the victims.