A failure of Risk Management System: a case of Minamata Disease

I want to get better soon. Soon. Everything is numb?my whole body.
Everything is getting dark. Breathing is hard. Living is hard,
said a victim who died shortly after the statement

A failure of Risk Management System: a case of Minamata Disease
Minamata disease: is a form of methylmercury poison affecting the central nervous system. It is due to prolonged large consumption of fish and shellfish polluted with methylmercury compound produced by chemical plants? dump wastewater flowing into rivers and seas, which then accumulates in fish.
Mercury is chemical element used in many everyday products, including shining lights and thermometers. Yet, Methylmercury is highly toxic, and if it absorbs into the blood and then to the brain, it will significantly damage to the human body. For the case of pregnant woman, the unborn baby could suffer brain damage.

The symptom: of Minamata Disease includes numbness (arm and legs), ataxia (loss of coordination), loss of equilibrium, vision narrowing, and loss of hearing. In sever cases, victims suffer dementia and unconsciousness, and it may lead to death due to acute fulminate form. The following is the statement of a victim who died shortly after saying:
I want to get better soon. Soon. Everything is numb?my whole body.
Everything is getting dark. Breathing is hard. Living is hard.
Origin of disease: The case of Minamata disease was firstly confirmed in Minamata Bay, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1956. That is the reason why it is called Minamata Disease. Then, in 1965, it was found in the Agano River basin, in Niigata Prefecture. The government only made an official announcement of disease in June 1965, about 10 years after the disease notification. The number of the Niigata victims applying for certification alone was about 2,138, but only 690 victims were officially recognized. For Kumamoto victims, the number of official recognized victims was only 12,621 (out of 23,037 applicants). The disease was confirmed to be eliminated by 1978.

Causes: In Kumamoto Prefecture, the disease stemmed from the waste pollution of Chisso Minamata Plant, which had been a symbol of the area growth. Chisso produced acetaldehyde, the raw material for acetic and vinyl acetate (1932-May 1968).During this operation, the methylmercury was negligently dumped into the Minamata Bay. Though, the company argued that the explosives, amine, and other substances were the cause of disease, not the methylmercury.
For the case of Niigata Prefecture, the researchers found out that it was due to wastewater polluted by Showa Denko Kanose Plant. However, the company rejected the claim and offered ?Agricultural Chemicals Theory,? holding that agricultural chemicals leak, during the Niigata earthquake, from a storage warehouse near the mouth of the Shinano River; then reached the Agano River.
These companies? argument slowed up the process of harm identification, while the victims suffered and some died.
minamanta disease
(source: Department of Health and Social Welfare (Mar 2005), “Outline of Niigata Minamata Disease,” Niigata, Japan)
Impact: The disease led to physical handicaps and impacts on their employment. Before, they were effectively hard-working homemakers or farmers. However, physical handicaps robbed their full capacity to work, and for some victims who hide their disease, were labeled as unskilled or lazy and they were forced to quit working. The disease also largely affected the fishing industry, which is the main income source of residents in these areas. Their sale was dropped due to the outbreak of disease (the total catch for the six fishing association in the Agano River fell by 23{ada422a91571c9f32663835004e322394559eff300a971d9698e6f9db6bdae5e} for migrating fish, and about 65{ada422a91571c9f32663835004e322394559eff300a971d9698e6f9db6bdae5e} for river fish). This income impact brought them into poverty and greatly changed their life as well as their family.

Beside, the victims also emotionally suffered from heartless discrimination, insults, and bigotry of the surrounding people (due to limited information about the causes of disease. It is like the case of HIV/AIDs that people previously prejudged that it can be infected by touching or speaking to that patients). Before the causes of Minamata Disease was not yet found, the disease was considered as a curse, or infectious disease that the victims were shunned by the community. Although after finding the cause of disease, there was still discrimination and the victims were laid off from their job, also their children could not find employment and marriage partners.
Implication: Though they were seriously affected by the disease, the legal procedure placed more burdens on the victims, including the responsibility to proof the case; applying for certification to be Minamata disease victims (some of them were rejected, so that they could not get any compensation or medical treatment and it was due to the strict certification regulation), and continuing effort to get stakeholders (the company and the government who neglected to prevent the second disease outbreak) accountable. Due to the delayed court process (about 10 years) and continued deny of the proponents, the victims were agreed to reach political resolution by the three main political parties: compensation and medical scheme by company and the government to those certified victims.

This story indicates the government failure in risk management system by putting more priority on industrial activity (after the post-war war II period and during competitive world market), and fails to involve stakeholders (who can be individuals, groups or organization that can affect, be affected by or perceived themselves to be affected) for risk communication and monitoring. Also, this experience can be the good lesson for developing countries whose social infrastructure and risk management system are weak.
Note: The reflection on Cambodia context is followed in the next article.

Watanabe Shinichi (2009, winter) ?Economic Development and its Risks to Life, Environment and Community: The case of Minamata Disease,? Risk Management under Globalization Class, Lecture Slide, International University of Japan.
Field visit (2009, Jan 27) at the Niigata Learning Center for Humans and Environment, meeting with Ms. Setsuko Kotake, a Minamanta disease victim.
Department of Health and Social Welfare (Mar 2005), “Outline of Niigata Minamata Disease,” Niigata, Japan
Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan (2002), “Minamata Disease: The History and Measures,” [online] http://www.env.go.jp/en/chemi/hs/minamata2002/

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