More than 50 years after the residents of Minamata, Japan suffered an outbreak of mercury poisoning due to contaminated local seafood from highly toxic waste water, 92 countries have signed a United Nations treaty designed to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury, a global legally binding instrument on mercury was adopted in Minamata, Japan, during the convention held on October 7 to 11, 2013.
The treaty is named after Minamata city where its residents suffered mercury poisoning from 1950s. In online version of a journal Environmental Health Perspectives, science and environmental journalist Rebecca Kessler explains the story of the victims of “Minamata disease“:
In July 1956, in a fishing village near the city of Minamata on Japan’s Shiranui Sea, a baby girl named Shinobu Sakamoto was born. Her parents soon realized something was wrong. At 3 months old, when healthy babies can hold up their heads, Sakamoto could not. She grew slowly and began crawling unusually late. At age 3 years, she drooled excessively and still couldn't walk. Her parents sent her to live at a local hospital, where she spent four years in therapy to learn to walk, use her hands, and perform other basic functions. Early on, several physicians agreed on a diagnosis of cerebral palsy.
Yet there were signs that Sakamoto’s condition was part of something much bigger. A few years before her birth, dead fish and other sea creatures had begun appearing in Minamata Bay. Seabirds were losing their ability to fly. And cats were dying off, many from convulsions that locals called “dancing disease.” Then, two months before Sakamoto’s birth, an outbreak of an unknown neurological illness was first reported among the area’s fishing families. Sakamoto’s older sister, Mayumi, and several of the family’s neighbors were diagnosed with the mysterious ailment, which was attributed to contaminated seafood. In 1957 scientists gave the ailment a name: Minamata disease.
That baby girl, Shinobu Sakamoto is now the Minamata Disease Victims Group leader. Aside from the diplomatic conference for the Minamata Convention, international NGOs and citizen groups also got together and exchanged information. The International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) co-hosted a symposium with Citizens Against Chemicals Pollution (CACP) on October 8, 2013 and presented their Minamata Declaration on Toxic Metals with Shinobu.
IPEN’s senior science and technical adviser Joe DiGangi said:
The Mercury Treaty is particularly connected to Minamata because it specifically calls on governments around the world to learn and apply the lessons from the Minamata tragedy to prevent mercury poisoning in the future. Unfortunately, the original tragedy is still not resolved.
With the Minamata name comes a special responsibility – and an opportunity to take actions so that the name Minamata is not only associated with a tragedy, but becomes a positive model in the resolution of the world’s worst case of mass mercury poisoning.