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Minimata Bay Mercury Victims Could Double

Hans Grimel / AP 10oct01

Minimata Bay

TOKYO -- Mercury poisoning from industrial dumping in Japan's Minamata Bay decades ago may affect tens of thousands more people than previously acknowledged, a leading researcher said Wednesday.

The fresh findings, slated to be released Monday, could increase pressure on the Japanese government to boost victim compensation in an environmental catastrophe shadowing the country for nearly 50 years.

The government officially recognizes 2,265 victims - 1,435 already dead - of the dumpings in the bay in southern Japan, where chemical maker Chisso Corp. had been pouring tons of mercury compounds since in the 1930s.

Some victims died after eating mercury-tainted fish, while others suffered spasms and blurred vision. Babies of poisoned mothers were born with gnarled limbs. Reports of victims began appearing in the 1950s.

Another 15,000 people have registered with the government as victims of mercury poisoning - but that number could more than double under new research that suggests weaker concentrations of the chemical than previously thought can cause brain damage and birth defects.

``Twenty-thousand more could very easily be damaged, that we can clearly say,'' said Shigeo Ekino, a professor at the Kumamoto University medical school who is spearheading new attempts to identify what concentrations pose a danger level to humans.

The government's original benchmark had been mercury levels of 50 parts per million detected in people's hair. But Ekino's research indicates that levels as low as 10 parts per million can stunt the brain's cerebral cortex, the area responsible for speaking, thinking and voluntary movement.

The research, which will be released Monday, piggybacks on an earlier Danish study from the North Atlantic's Faroe Islands, where inhabitants ingest high concentrations of mercury by eating whale meat.

The results are likely to stir controversy in Japan, where the government has begrudgingly agreed to compensate some of the worst affected victims - but has refused to expand the scope of payouts.

In 1995, it set aside about $255 million in state subsidies and bonds to compensate victims.

But it has appealed an April court ruling that ordered the government to pay part of an additional $2.65 million award to a group of 51 plaintiffs. The court ruled that the government shared responsibility for failing to stop Chisso from dumping into the bay.

Spokeswoman Yoko Iwasaki said the government opposes the ruling because Minamata victims were already compensated under the government's original deal. She added that the government's criteria of who qualifies as a victim is much stricter than that used by the court.

The suit, originally filed in 1982, in now in the hands of Japan's Supreme Court.

If the threshold is dropped to 10 parts per million, an estimated 2 million more people could be considered to have the disease, Kyodo news agency quoted Yoichi Tani, of the Minamata Disease Victims' Mutual Aid Society, as saying.

But Ekino dismissed the 2 million figure as speculative. He said it was based on the number of people who potentially could have eaten fish caught in the Shiranui Sea, which envelops the mouth of Minamata Bay.

Mercury levels in the waters are 50 times normal. Ekino said about 200,000 people were exposed to eating its fish.

While fishing in Minamata Bay was banned in 1976 - and given an all-clear sign in 1997 - fishing continued unabated in surrounding waters. The government says mercury levels in the Shiranui Sea are within safe boundaries.


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