The Multinational Monitor


C O R P O R A T E   C R I M E   &  V I O L E N C E


Mercury's Crippling Legacy

by Russell Mokhiber

In the early stages, the victims lapse into unconsciousness, involuntary movements, and often uncontrolled shouting. The brain becomes sponge-like as its cells are eaten away. The nervous system begins to degenerate. A tingling, growing numbness affects the limbs and lips. Motor functions become severely disturbed, the speech slurred, the field of vision constricted. At first, the doctors misdiagnosed it as encephalitis, Japonica, alcoholism, syphilis, hereditary ataxia, infantile paralysis, cerebral palsy. Later, it became known as simply "the strange disease," and then 01e Minamata disease. It affected hundreds of residents of Minamata, Japan, a small, quiet fishing village and home of the Chisso Corporation, a petrochemical company and maker of plastics.

The first sign that something was amiss in the town came in 1950, when fish began to die in Minamata Bay. Two years later, cats all over the city began to die after violent convulsions.

In April, 1956, a 5-year-old girl entered Chisso's Minamata factory hospital with severe symptoms of brain damage. She could not walk, her speech was incoherent, and she was in a state of severe delirium. She became the first reported case of "Minamata Disease."

Several days later, her younger sister entered the hospital with the same symptoms. Soon, hundreds of their fellow residents would join them.

By the summer of 1956, the disease had reached epidemic proportions. An uneasiness developed among neighbors who, not knowing the nature of the disease that invaded their town, suspected that it might be contagious. As neighbor turned against neighbor, the medical investigators turned their spotlight on Chisso.

In August 1956, a research team from Kumamoto University Medical School began an investigation into the origins of the disease. Two months later the group issued a public report that attributed the sickness to heavy metal poisoning caused by eating contaminated fish from Minamata Bay. Further investigations pinpointed methyl-mercury as the heavy metal causing the poisoning. Chisso denied that methylmercury was a byproduct from its acetaldehyde manufacturing process and refused to allow its factory waste to be examined.

In September 1958, the company began diverting its acetaldehyde waste water, which studies by the research group later showed contained methyl-mercury, from the Bay to the Minamata River, ignoring the warning of its own company doctors not to do so. A few months later, the Minamata sickness began to appear among residents who lived in the river area.

The most devastating indictment of the company came from Chisso's own Dr. Hajim Hosokawa. In 1959, Hosokawa began feeding cats the same chemical effluent that Chisso was pouring into the Minamata waters. The cats soon fell ill with symptoms of Minamata disease. Dr. Hosokawa took the results of his cat studies to Chisso's management. Chisso's reaction was swift and sure - the doctor was forbidden access to more of the effluent and was taken off experiments. Hosokawa's evidence, which linked the Minamata Disease with Chisso's factory wastes, was concealed from the public. This information would not be made public until after many more residents had fallen victim to the diseasee and after Chisso had hadd the opportunity to "cut its losses" with the people already afflicted.

From Dr. Hosowaka's investigation, Chisso knew that in all likelihood its wastes caused Minamata Disease. Internal company documents released in 1985 as a result of civil litigation in Japan show that some Chisso employees sought to dispose of mercury wastes inside the Minamata plant as early as 1957, two years before Dr. Hosowaka's investigation. One document, filed in April of 1957, proposed pumping effluents resulting from the production of acetaldehyde into a tank where the mercurial contents could be removed.

Even after recieving Dr. Hosotaka's findings, however, the company did not immediately halt the dumping of mercury tainted wast into Minamata Bay; nor did the company warn the residents of the town to avoiid eating the tainted fish. Chisso's first reaction was to offer the victims payments in consolation for their misfortune. While Chisso knew about Dr. Hosokawa's findings, the afflicted residents did not. Taking advantage of the legal and scientific disadvantage of their victims, Chisso negotiated one-sided contractswhich limited the company's liability to the initial, minimum payment. Chisso accepted no legal responsibilities for the damage done to the victims and disclaimed any future monetary liability.

Although a study by Dr. K. Irukayama of the Kumamoto University showed that sludge from the Chisso Manufacturing process contained methyl-mercury, under japanese law the company was dumping "statutorily permissable," (non-criminal amounts) of acetaldehyde waste water into the Bay. This reality, however, did not stop the more than 750 victims afflicted with the disease from demanding in a civil court that Chisso pay fair compensation for their injuries. On March 20, 1973, after a four-year legal struggle with the company, some of the early victims of Minamata Disease won a verdict in Kumamoto District Court. The judge ruled that "even though the quality and content of the waste water of the defendant's plant satisfied statutory limitations and administrative standards ... the defendant cannot escape from the liability of negligence." Chisso was ordered to pay the plaintiffs $3.2 million in damages.

The leaders of the fight to gain just compensation were disappointed by the verdict. The judgment compensated only a handful of the plaintiffs injured in 1959 - and a few more similarly situated victims. It did not cover damages done to residents since that time, nor did it allow for medical fees, medicines, therapeutic massages and hot baths, nursing for the bedridden, transportation to and from treatment, or living expenses.

The criminal law offered inadequate deterrence, and the civil law offered little compensation. The affected residents, forced to take things into their own hands, demanded direct negotiations with Chisso management.

Two days after the Kumamoto verdict was handed down, the victims and scores of residents from Minamata went to Chisso's headquarters in Tokyo to meet face to face with Chisso managers. Chisso President Yoshiharu Tanoue told the Minamata residents that the company would "accept all responsibilities concerning Minamata Disease" and would "pay with all sincerity all damages arising from the Minamata Disease." Chisso argued that, in anticipation of thousands of damage claims, however, the company would pay all damages "to the best of Chisso's ability."

This final clause angered the Minamata residents and made Chisso's offer unacceptable. It also guaranteed that the negotiations would stretch on for days.

"I have come to you Mr. President," said one resident, "to negotiate for my future. We come to ask not for luxuries but for medicine to ease our pain and for peace to die, knowing our poisoned children will be cared for."

With these and other personal statements describing the ravages of Minamata Disease, the patients pushed for complete and total compensation. The company held back for fear that meeting the patients demands would lead to bankruptcy. Days passed. The response from Chisso remained the same, "we have added up the cost of your demands. We just cannot pay it."

Finally, after a week of negotiation, Kimoto Iwamoto, a victim of Minamata disease had had enough. He stood up, grabbed a glass ashtray, slammed it against the negotiating table, and used its shattered remains to slash his wrist. "I can't stand it anymore," he shouted. "You can see for yourself, if I don't get the indemnity money, I can't live." In the bedlam which followed, the president of Chisso agreed to pay a higher rate of compensation.

By early 1975, Chisso had paid out an estimated $80 million dollars to the 785 verified victims of Minamata Disease. Yet researchers estimated that the number of people affected might eventually reach 10,000, and many cases are still pending in Japanese courts.

In September 1976, two former Chisso Corporation executives were charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of six people who ate fish contaminated by Chisso's mercury wastes. The two, Kiichi Yoshioka, 85, Chisso Corp.'s president at the time of the poisoning, and Eiichi Nishida, 76, the former plant director, were found guilty. Their appeals are currently pending.

Taking a page from their American counterparts, Chisso reportedly is planning to declare bankruptcy in order to avoid paying further compensation. In 1985, Professor Takashi Yamaguchi of Tokyo's Meiji University reported that Chisso stopped investing in plant and equipment in 1959, soon after scientists identified the cause of Minamata Disease, and began establishing subsidiaries. Today, the subsidiaries far surpass the parent firm in everything from productive capacity to sales and tangible fixed assets. More than 6,000 victims of the Minamata disease have yet to be officially certified, and many fear that if the company goes bankrupt they will be unable to get money to compensate them for their illness.

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