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Minamata Disease and The Photography of W Eugene Smith Martin Donohoe

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1 Minamata Disease and The Photography of W Eugene Smith Martin Donohoe

2 Outline Introduction Mercury and Methylmercury as pollutants Minamata Disease W Eugene Smith – bio and photos Minamata Convention

3 Mercury Mercury ore (cinnabar) used as pigment since Neolithic era (found in 10,000 yr old cave paintings) Ancient Romans, Chinese used as rouge makeup Pigment mixed with wax for document seals in Middle Ages

4 Mercury Syphilis Treatment - 15th Century onward - abandoned 1940 for penicillin Recognized as cause of disease in 19th Century (Hunter-Russell Syndrome) - chemists, hatters (matted fur together with mercuric nitrate to make felt hats)

5 Mercury Used in late-19 th Century to extract silver from pulverized ore Diuretic (used through mid-20 th Century) Used as a preservative in latex paints until banned by EPA in 1991

6 Mercury Added by US government to industrial alcohol during Prohibition to make it more lethal and discourage moonshine production (1926-1933) – Led to more than 10,000 deaths

7 Mercury Used in chlor-alkali plants to make chlorine and sodium hydroxide for industry Used in production of vinyl chloride, an important ingredient in plastics and vinyl

8 Mercury Hg miners at high risk Found today in Chinese medications, skin lightening creams, hair dyes

9 Mercury Half from volcanic eruptions and other geological processes Released into air by coal combustion, industrial processes, mining, and waste disposal – 4500 tons/yr Travels throughout atmosphere and settles in oceans and waterways Bacteria convert it to toxic methyl-mercury

10 Mercury Travels up food chain via fish – Warmer temperatures increase metabolic rate and ability of fish to accumulate – Avoid top predators (tuna, shark, swordfish Acadian redfish, aka dogfish – used in school lunch programs – 1/3 of US exposure to methylmercury from canned tuna

11 Gold Mining Gold = Cyanide + Mercury Mercury used to capture gold particles as an amalgam Gold leached from ore using cyanide – Cyanide paralyzes cellular respiration At least 18 tons of mine waste created to obtain the gold for a single 3 oz., 18k ring

12 Gold Mining and Mercury Contaminated groundwater often sits in large toxic lakes held in place by tenuous dams Release of cyanide and mercury into local waterways kills fish, harms fish-eating animals, and poisons drinking water

13 Mercury Other sources: – Deforestation and runoff – Industrial boilers – Tooth fillings – Car batteries – Cosmetics

14 Mercury Dental amalgams: – 50% mercury; 50% silver, copper, tin, zinc mixture – dental amalgam factory workers at high risk – Mercury dental amalgams pose health risks to pregnant women, unborn babies, and children (FDA Black Box Warning added 2009) – esp tooth grinders – No link with nervous system toxicity and no benefit to removal in adults

15 Mercury 720,000 metric tons removed from ground since 1850 57% of mercury released since 1850 circulates in environment 43% locked away in sediments and landfills

16 Mercury Long biological half-life - 1-3 years in humans Regulation inadequate – Allows “cap and trade”

17 Mercury 16% of women of childbearing age exceed the EPA’s “safe” mercury level Freshwater fish mercury levels too high for pregnant women to eat in 43 states Consumers Union disagrees with FDA recommended limits on tuna consumption for pregnant women – States pregnant women should not eat ANY tuna

18 Minamata Bay Southern Japan Shiranui Sea Fishing village Villagers: fisherman/Chisso Corporation employees and their families



21 Chisso Corporation Established 1918 Produced acetaldehyde for plastics, drugs, perfumes, photography Mercury (Hg) catalyst Byproduct = methylmercury, dumped into bay (150 tons over 4 decades) Dumped over 60 deadly poisons, including vinyl chloride (cause of liver cancer)


23 Chronology of Chisso's Environmental Pollution 1925 - local fishing cooperative compensated for decreased catch 1950s - bizarre behavioral changes observed in birds, marine fish, land vertebrates; oysters vanish 1950s / 1960s - reports in Japanese medical journals about human cases

24 Chronology of Chisso's Environmental Pollution 1956 - cause (MeHg) of Minamata Disease elucidated 1958-60 - reports in English medical journals 1959-69 - Dr. Hosokawa's experiments – Cat #400 – Other studies 1959 cyclator added – Removed Hg, but not MeHg


26 Chronology of Chisso's Environmental Pollution 1965 - fishing banned in Minamata Bay after similar events noted in Niigata, Japan 1968 - all acetaldehyde-producing plants ceased operating 1970 - Japan Water Pollution Control Act – Allowed no detectable Hg or MeHg in waste water

27 Chronology of Chisso's Environmental Pollution 1997 – Minamata Bay declared free of mercury 2004 – Japanese Supreme Court rules government shares responsibility for epidemic (government slow to react, cut off research funding in 1962)

28 Minamata Disease 3,000 official cases in Minamata Bay (almost 1800 dead) – Tens of thousands of unofficial cases – Number of victims may be as high as 100,000 Social stigma / Poor health care

29 Congenital Minamata Disease: Signs and Symptoms Congenital: high dose → infertility; medium dose → spontaneous abortions; low dose → congenital disease (including anencephaly and spina bifida) S/S: poor physical growth, mental retardation, impaired speech/chewing/swallowing, muscle tone abnormalities, involuntary movements, constricted visual fields - EDTA not effective

30 Signs and Symptoms Acute / Chronic Poisoning: – Numbness, slurred speech, ataxia, unsteady gait, deafness, poor vision, dysphagia, hypersalivation, confusion, drowsiness/stupor to irritability/restlessness – Linked to autism – Chronic liver disease, liver cancer – Nephropathy

31 Signs and Symptoms Acute / Chronic Poisoning: – Hypertension – Autoimmune disorders – Rash - Acrodynia (“pink disease”, small children, swelling and irritation of palms and feet → desquamation, irritability, photophobia, fever, insomnia, profuse sweating – Death within a few months if severe

32 Diagnosis Mercury levels in air, blood, urine: – “Normal” level = 5 mcg/l – 20 mcg/l – 100 mcg/l = subacute toxicity, consider treatment – >100 mcg/l in blood and/or urine = toxic, treat

33 Treatment Chelation with BAL, penicillamine, DMPS, DMSA (best) – May help with neurologic symptoms – Nephrotic syndrome resolves over several months – Follow levels to assess adequacy of treatment, need for additional doses – Consult occupational medicine/poison control





38 Civil suit vs. Chisso (1969-73) Plaintiffs initially awarded $66,000 for deceased victims, $59,000 - $66,000 for survivors Precedent - Niigata suit versus Showa Denko – $3.4 million paid out the first night, $80 million paid out by 1975 As of 2014, most victims have received financial compensation ($160,000 - $180,000; $26000 for those with lesser disabilities)



41 Civil suit vs. Chisso (1969-73) Dr. Hosokawa key witness (from deathbed) – Identity - company employee vs. impartial physician with obligation to patients – Loyalty - company vs. to public


43 Reasons for Delayed Recognition and Action Science slow, unfunded/underfunded, corrupt Dissemination of knowledge slow Social stigma of disease, fear of contagion Pressure from fisheries cooperative, Chisso employees

44 Reasons for Delayed Recognition and Action Lack of local/world awareness of health effects of pollution Strong government-business links in Japan, employee loyalty strong

45 Decreasing Causes and Limiting Consequences of Mercury Pollution Phase out coal burning power plants Hospitals phasing out mercury thermometers Stop buying gold (e.g., wedding rings) Make healthy seafood purchases Screen and treat when appropriate Avoid tainted cosmetics

46 Minamata Convention A set of legally binding measures to curb mercury pollution – As of 10/16/14, 128 countries have signed and 6 (including the U.S.) have ratified – Takes effect 90 days after 50 nations ratify

47 Minamata Convention Best emission-control technologies requred for new power plants, boilers and smelters Compact fluorescent lightbulbs containing over 5 mg Hg banned by 2020 Primary mercury mining banned (old mines get 15 yrs to close down) Allows use of mercury in artisanal and small scale gold mining; encourages nations to phase out use altogether

48 Minamata Convention Exempts dental fillings, but encourages alternatives Vaccines with thimerosol (ethylmercury) exempt (very few, trace amounts) Considered “safe” but best to avoid if possible But benefits of vaccination great

49 Minamata Convention Bans Hg-containing batteries by 2020 (button-cell batteries exempt) Bans switches and relays with Hg by 2020 Limits Hg in soaps and some cosmetics

50 Minamata Convention Bans Hg in medical devices by 2020 Exempts religious and traditional uses of Hg Bans use in certain types of manufacturing Japan – Asia’s largest exporter of mercury Japanese industry fighting treaty/trade ban

51 Minamata Disease Memorial

52 W Eugene Smith Born 1918, Wichita, KS Local news photographer at age 15 Turned down scholarship to Notre Dame to study photography at NY Institute of Photography Worked for Newsweek, then Life, then Magnum

53 W Eugene Smith Married to Aileen Smith, photojournalist Minamata: Final Assignment Beaten by Chisso employees Died 1978















68 Role of the Media in Promoting Awareness of Environmental Health Issues Books – Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People – Upton Sinclair's The Jungle – Rachel Carson's Silent Spring Photography – W. Eugene and Aileen Smith's Minamata photoessay – Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange, Sebastiao Salgado, James Nachtwey, others Film, TV










78 Contact Info, References Martin Donohoe This slide show and others available at

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