EARTH Thailand

Seminar seeks to shine spotlight on mercury-linked Minamata disease

Kyodo  07 September 2016 | Keiji Hirano

Victims, researchers and academics will on Saturday gather in Bangkok for a seminar marking the 60th anniversary since the discovery of mercury poisoning malady Minamata disease.

To be held at Chulalongkorn University, speakers will include Shinobu Sakamoto, a Kumamoto Prefecture native who contracted Minamata disease, which paralyzes the central nervous system and causes birth defects, in the womb.

“We expect Thai people to know much more about Minamata disease and to be more aware of the necessity for mercury use regulation through this seminar,” said Yoichi Tani, a senior staff member at the Collaboration Center for Minamata Disease Victims.

Sakamoto was born in Minamata in 1956, around the time a public health center in the small coastal city in Kumamoto Prefecture received a report from a local doctor that four people had unexplained neurological disorders.

It was later considered to be when Minamata disease was first recognized.

Sakamoto has repeatedly said her life overlaps the history of the ailment, which chemical maker Chisso Corp. was found to have caused by dumping industrial waste into Minamata Bay.

At the seminar, Sakamoto will discuss her experience visiting Sweden and Vietnam to talk about her life as a Minamata disease patient, according to Tani.

From the academic side, researchers from Kumamoto Gakuen University will present their findings.

Among them is Masanori Hanada, director of the university’s Open Research Center for Minamata Studies, who will give a lecture titled “Lessons from the History of Minamata Disease and Current Challenges in the International Community.”

“The problem is that comprehensive studies on Minamata disease have not yet been conducted,” Hanada said, indicating the whole picture of the disease, including the actual number of victims, remains unresolved, while the criteria for recognizing people with Minamata disease is still in dispute. Several damages suits are also still pending.

The center has provided Minamata studies courses since 2002, with the aim of passing on lessons about the disease by inviting people such as teachers, lawyers, administrators, journalists and patients to the classroom.

The upcoming seminar has been organized in cooperation with Chulalongkorn University’s Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, which has finalized a research partnership with the Open Research Center for Minamata Studies at Kumamoto Gakuen University, according to Hanada.

Sakamoto, Tani and other participants in the seminar will also visit Thai health authorities on Monday to push for mercury use regulation, Tani said.

The Japanese government recognized Minamata disease as a pollution-caused disease in September 1968.

However, only about 3,000 of more than 33,700 applicants have been officially recognized as having Minamata disease in Kumamoto and neighboring Kagoshima prefectures as well as Niigata Prefecture, where a similar pollution-caused disease was confirmed in 1965, caused by wastewater from a Showa Denko K.K. plant.