At primary school we had a daily assembly, singing hymns and mumbling prayers (my school having been Church of England affiliated), and listening to short stories that served the purpose of a moral lesson by providing our thought for the day. Parables from the Gospels mixed in with tales drawn from Greek myths or Aesop’s fables.
I have long since forgotten most of these stories, aside from the more famous tales of Icarus and Midas, and except, that is, for one story which also lodged much deeper in my memory. It concerned a crisis that came to a small city in Japan where the people and animals had suddenly started going mad and dying. Increasingly numbers falling victim to a mysterious plague, which, due to the strange symptoms, the locals had called “dancing cat fever”.
Minamata, the place of this disaster, now bears the name of its disease. If you type “Minamata” into google you will discover indeed that “Minamata disease” is listed at the top of the search; references to the disease ranking above almost all the other links to general descriptions of the city itself. You will also learn – if you didn’t know already – that the cause of this fatal disease was industrial poisoning; heavy metals, and specifically an organomercury compound called methylmercury, which had been released into the bay by a chemical factory called Chisso Corporation over a period of many decades. A deadly neurotoxin which then bioaccumulated in the fish and shellfish caught and eaten by the local community.
Hearing about the dying cats and the birds falling out of the air and all the people suffering made this one of the saddest stories I had ever heard. Sad not only because it was true, but almost unbearably sad because so much of the suffering (which still continues) was completely avoidable.
For many years, there had been clear and irrefutable evidence that the disease was being caused by effluent released from the local chemical plant, and throughout this time, Chisso were also fully aware of their own responsibility in the poisoning. Instead of cleaning up their operation, however, the management at Chisso took the decision to disguise the facts. Diverting their poisons away from the main outlet into the harbour and then discharging the same effluent more covertly into the nearby Minamata River. Actions that exacerbated the environmental damage whilst deliberately prolonging the agony of the people.
It was this part of the story which carried the important moral lesson, leaving the deepest impression on my still very innocent mind. Such callous deliberation causing me to wonder how people can behave so monstrously to one another.
So now I hear another story coming from Japan. One part of this new story available, for instance, in this Guardian report from yesterday:
The operator of Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant said on Thursday another tank holding highly contaminated water overflowed, probably sending the liquid into the Pacific Ocean, in the second such breach in less than two months. […]
The latest leaks show Tepco’s efforts to improve its handling of the contaminated water are not sufficient, Japan’s top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, told reporters on Thursday. The government will take steps to deal with the water, he said, adding that he thought the situation was under control.1
Click here to read the full Guardian article.
With disturbing echoes of a potentially looming disaster reminiscent of what happened at Minamata having been reported a week earlier:
Local fishermen in Fukushima Prefecture on Wednesday restarted operations suspended late last month after heavy amounts of contaminated water from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant was found leaking into the ocean. […]
On Tuesday, the federation decided to resume trial fishing after a string of radiation tests by member co-ops did not find any readings above the government’s 100 becquerels per kilogram safety limit for food products.
Of the 100 fish and seafood products tested, 95 were clear of radioactive material, with the other five containing less than 1/10 of the limit, the federation said. […]
The federation said Tuesday that it would put the catches on sale after confirming that radiation readings for the catch is below 50 becquerels per kilogram — less than half the mandatory limit.2
Click here to read the full report in The Japan Times.
Back in the coastal waters off Minamata, mercury still permeates the sediments and fishing remains prohibited. The city itself has never recovered from the disaster and its dwindling population continue to be divided over attitudes towards the Chisso Corporation and their own victimhood:
Indeed, the environmental disaster that struck Minamata has never really stopped. Though much of the mercury has been dredged from the bay overlooking the Shiranui Sea, the fishing grounds are still dangerously polluted and the fishermen, who numbered heavily among the victims, are gone.
Minamata’s population has declined by a third, to fewer than 35,000, and most of those who are left are elderly. Young people who flee for the cities after graduating from high school say they go to great lengths to conceal their origins because elsewhere in Japan Minamata’s residents are often regarded as “polluted,” even if they do not suffer from Minamata disease.
“You simply cannot get a position in a company if people know you are from Minamata,” said Tsuginori Hamamoto, a leader of one of the many victims’ groups, who is himself confined to a wheelchair because of mercury-tainted fish he ate. “For young people, it is almost impossible to find a marriage partner.” Bitter Divisions
Moreover, the town itself is bitterly divided. Mr. Hamamoto and other victims are constantly pressing for memorials and commemorative museums that they say would restore some dignity to the victims; many other residents want all reminders of the disease swept away in hopes that Chisso, whose factory still dominates the town, will invest further here.3
Click here to read the full article published in The New York Times.
And the latest official message is that it’s safe again to eat the fish from Fukushima. The contamination being within acceptable limits, the authorities say, trying very hard to persuade the world that this horrendous disaster is mostly behind us:
“Let me assure you, the situation is under control,” Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said during lobbying for the 2020 Olympics. “There are no health-related problems until now, nor will there be in the future.”
But why would anyone believe them…? Here is part of a report from the Georgia Straight:
About 800 people worldwide will get cancer from radiation due to Fukushima in fish eaten to date, according to Georgia Straight calculations. The Straight results relied on a widely used cancer-risk formula developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as radiation levels in 33,000 fish tested by the Japanese Fisheries Agency.
Half the cancers will be fatal. About 500 will be in Japan; 75 will be due to Japanese fish exports to other countries; and 225 will be from fishing in the Pacific by nations other than Japan.
And that’s likely only a small part of the actual long-term cancer impacts from eating the fish. Two nuclear experts who saw the Straight’s figures said the real cancer toll could be 100 times higher—or 80,000 cancers.
“The potential numbers could be two orders of magnitude [100 times] higher than your numbers,” Daniel Hirsch, a nuclear-policy lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said in a phone interview. “Hundreds of cancers are nothing to sneeze at, and it is a fraction of what I suspect the total will be.” […]
The Straight also sent its cancer calculations to Eiichiro Ochiai, a retired chemistry professor in Vancouver who taught at UBC and the University of Tokyo and has written a book titled Hiroshima to Fukushima: Biohazards of Radiation (to be released on October 31).
In a phone interview, Ochiai agreed the calculations were done correctly and that the actual cancer toll will likely be higher. He said cancer-risk formulas used by governments underestimate the true cancer impact, especially those cases that arise from eating contaminated food.
“The official data is all denial,” Ochiai said. “The nuclear industry tries to suppress the truth.”4
Truth is that there is no genuinely “safe level” for radiation, just as there is no safe level for inhaling asbestos fibres or tobacco smoke. Nor is there any safe level for consuming heavy metals like uranium. So it seems that perhaps the hardest lesson to be learnt from Minamata (or countless other environmental disasters) is the most straightforward one: that those in authority rarely, if ever, actually care about what happens to you. Instead they lie. First to make money, and then, afterwards, to avoid prosecution and save face. Surely we aren’t so innocent as to believe differently.
1 From an article entitled “Second breach at Fukushima nuclear plant leaks toxic water into sea”, from Reuters, published in the Guardian on October 3, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/03/fukushima-nuclear-plant-leak-japan
2 From an article entitled “Trial fishing resumes of Fukushima after radiation tests” published by The Japan Times on September 25, 2013. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/09/25/national/trial-fishing-resumes-off-fukushima-after-radiation-tests/#.Uk7eDFOwd9Q
3 From an article entitled “Japan and the Mercury-Poisoned Sea: A Reckoning That Won’t Go Away”, written by David E. Sanger, published by The New York Times on January 16, 1991. http://www.nytimes.com/1991/01/16/world/japan-and-the-mercury-poisoned-sea-a-reckoning-that-won-t-go-away.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
4 From an article entitled “Fish data belie Japan’s claims on Fukushima”, written by Alex Roslin, published in the Georgia Straight on October 2, 2013. http://www.straight.com/life/497646/fish-data-belie-japans-claims-fukushima