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Friday, June 15, 2012
Legacy of a Minamata researcher
Dr. Masazumi Harada, who devoted himself to the study of Minamata disease, Japan's worst disease induced by industrial pollution affecting an estimated more than 30,000 people, died on June 11 of acute myelocytic leukemia at his home in the city of Kumamoto. He was 77. In carrying out his research, he continued to be on the side of Minamata disease victims. He spoke and wrote to scientifically convey the true picture of the dreadful disease to the public.
The death of Dr. Harada should serve as an opportunity for the government and businesses to reflect on the many cases of industrial pollution that have taken many lives in the course of Japan's modernization and to remind themselves of their social responsibility to rectify pollution damage inflicted on humans and the environment and to prevent future industrial pollution.
On May 1, 1956, a local public health center in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, reported the occurrence of a "rare disease of unknown cause" afflicting four people with symptoms of an unexplained brain disorder — the first official recognition of Minamata disease. In 1959, a Kumamoto University team said it was caused by organic mercury released from Chisso Corp.'s Minamata factory. But the government and Chisso resisted the findings and failed to take proper action.
In 1965, people with similar symptoms were found along the Agano River in Niigata Prefecture — the discovery of Second or Niigata Minamata disease caused by organic mercury released from Showa Denko K.K.'s Kanose factory in the prefecture.
The government and industries concerned should take a serious view of the fact that it took so many years before Minamata disease was officially recognized as an industrial pollution-induced disease. It was only in September 1968 that the Health and Welfare Ministry declared the disease was caused by methylmercury released from Chisso's Minamata factory.
The government committed a similar delay in the case of Itai-itai disease, which was suffered by residents along the Jinzu River in Toyama Prefecture. In 1955, a doctor announced that it was a poisoning case caused by cadmium released from Mitsui Mining and Smelting Co.'s Kamioka mining station in Gifu Prefecture. The ministry recognized the disease as an industrial pollution-induced disease only in May 1968.
In 1964, Dr. Harada published a thesis on a type of Minamata disease congenitally affecting patients. His work disproved the conventional belief that the placenta does not pass on poisons to the fetus. Dr. Harada won an award for his work from the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology the next year. He vehemently criticized the government and Chisso Corp.'s attitude, and spoke for Minamata disease victims in a series of trials against them.
From a medical viewpoint, he criticized the government standard for recognizing people eligible for Minamata disease compensation as it excludes those clearly suffering from the disease. He also pointed out that prejudice and discrimination against Minamata disease victims were the "fundamental cause" of their sufferings. The government, corporations and people must seriously learn from his activities and books.