I ran into this story about mercury in fish in Japan in the 1950's.
It started out quite simply, with the strangeness of cats "dancing" in the street--and sometimes collapsing and dying. Who would have known, in a modest Japanese fishing village in the 1950s, that when friends or family members occasionally shouted uncontrollably, slurred their speech, or dropped their chopsticks at dinner, that one was witnessing the subtle early symptoms of a debilitating nervous condition caused by ingesting mercury? Yet when such scattered, apparently unconnected, and mildly mysterious events began to haunt the town of Minamata, Japan, they were the first signs of one of the most dramatic and emotionally moving cases of industrial pollution in history.The outcome was tragic: a whole town was both literally and figuratively poisoned. Yet for those of us, now, who can view it more distantly, this episode also offers a conceptually clear and affectively powerful example of the concentration of elements in food chains, the sometimes unexpected interconnectedness of humans and their environment, and the complex interactions of biology and culture. In short, it is a paradigm for teaching ecology and science-society issues.
The case of Minamata, Japan, and the mercury poisoning (originally called Minamata disease) that took place there, appeared briefly in news headlines in the 1970s and then receded from public attention--at least in the U.S. The episode was fully and richly documented, however, by former Life photographer, Eugene Smith, and his wife, Aileen, who lived in Minamata for several years. Much of what follows draws on their book (unfortunately, now out-of-print, but available in many libraries; see Smith and Smith 1972, 1975; Ishimure 1990).
The Poisoning of Minamata. In 1932 the Chisso Corporation, an integral part of the local economy since 1907, began to manufacture acetaldehyde, used to produce plastics. As we know now, mercury from the production process began to spill into the bay. Though no one knew until decades later, the heavy metal became incorporated into methyl mercury chloride: an organic form that could enter the food chain. At the time, Minamata residents relied almost exclusively on fish and shellfish from the bay as a source of protein. For us, today, the threat of pollution is immediately evident. But one must not fail to appreciate the historical context in which neither scientific experience nor a pervasive environmental awareness could offer such an explicit warning.