Japanese mercury experts urging Canada to recognize and help Grassy Narrows First Nation victims

From CBC.ca

Grassy Narrows: The lost science of mercury poisoning

Canadian officials have never admitted to a single case of Minamata disease in northwestern Ontario

By Kelly Crowe, Sep 02, 2014

Dr. Akitomo Shimoji, a Japanese doctor who specializes in neurology and psychiatry among victims of mercury poisoning, performs a skin sensitivity test on Grassy Narrows resident Bill Fobister.

Dr. Akitomo Shimoji, a Japanese doctor who specializes in neurology and psychiatry among victims of mercury poisoning, performs a skin sensitivity test on Grassy Narrows resident Bill Fobister. (Jody Porter/CBC )

About The Author

Photo of Kelly Crowe

Kelly Crowe, Medical science -  a medical sciences correspondent for CBC News, specializing in health and biomedical research. She joined CBC in 1991, and has spent 25 years reporting on a wide range of national news and current affairs, with a particular interest in science and medicine.

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First the mink and the otter began to disappear. Then the local people started noticing something odd about the way the eagles and turkey vultures were flying overhead. One man watched his kitten walking in circles, salivating and convulsing. 

These were the early warning signs around 1970 that something sinister was happening at Grassy Narrows along the Wabigoon River in northwestern Ontario.

The mink, the otter, the eagles and the vultures had mercury poisoning from eating contaminated fish. The cat's brain, later analyzed, revealed full-blown Minamata disease, the twitching tremors and stumbling gait associated with extreme exposure to the heavy metal.

Those details are preserved in the research papers of Dr. Masazumi Harada, a Japanese scientist who never stopped tracking the effects of mercury contamination on the people at Grassy Narrows, long after Canadian researchers closed their files.

Even though Harada died a few years ago, his research on the community northeast of Kenora continues to this day. A Japanese team is just wrapping up the fifth visit since the research began in 1975. 

They've spent the last week doing physical examinations, looking for evidence of brain and central nervous system damage from one of the most infamous examples of environmental mercury poisoning.

Sixty years ago, the world was oblivious to the hazards of the raw mercury that industries were dumping into lakes and rivers, unaware that bacteria were transforming the inorganic metal into methyl mercury, an organic pollutant that accumulates in the food chain, contaminating fish and poisoning people. 

In the late 1950s, more than 100 people died in Minamata, Japan, and many more suffered devastating brain damage after eating fish contaminated with mercury that had been released into a lake by a chemical company.

Contaminated fish

But it took another decade to recognize the emerging disaster in northern Ontario, just downstream from the Dryden pulp mill, where mercury used in the bleaching process was being flushed into the Wabigoon River.

By the time government scientists arrived in 1970 to do some testing, the people at Grassy Narrows and neighbouring Wabeseemoong First Nations had already eaten dangerous amounts of contaminated fish. The first tests revealed extreme levels of mercury in hair and blood.

Grassy Narrows First Nation

The community of Grassy Narrows, northeast of Kenora, Ont., is built along the same water system that makes the people sick. Mercury contamination from the 1960s and '70s has never been cleaned up. (Jody Porter/CBC)

But human health effects were not diagnosed until Harada showed up in 1975, tipped off by a Japanese photographer that there was a mini-Minamata happening in Canada.

Using his expertise from studying the Japanese victims, Harada diagnosed at least 60 cases of Minamata disease in Grassy Narrows, another 54 cases of Minamata-with-complications and a further two dozen suspected cases.

Yet, to this day, Canadian officials have never admitted to a single case of Minamata disease.  

A small number of the people in the Grassy Narrows region who have applied for compensation have received money, based on neurological symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning. But there has long been a reluctance to confirm an official diagnosis.

And the full extent of the human health effects of the mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows has never been systematically investigated.

There has been no epidemiological study to establish the scope of the Grassy Narrows exposure, and no long-term tracking of what are now recognized as the life-long effects of ingested mercury, although an expert review by Canadian scientists in 2010 stated  "there should have been extensive examinations and followup of these communities."

Fading interest

Instead, scientific interest in the Grassy Narrows story faded. Over the decades, as the levels of mercury in hair and blood tests began to fall, government monitoring tapered off. The hand-bound copies of research reports now gather dust on library shelves.

There have been some recent surveys of environmental contamination in First Nations communities, which have included testing for mercury in hair and blood, but those tests reveal only recent exposure. They do not shed light on the effects of past exposures or the ongoing damage from the toxic metal now embedded in the cells and tissue of the brain.

Margaret Wanlin, Kazuhito Tsuruta

Margaret Wanlin, chair of the Mercury Disability Board, right, listens as Dr. Kazuhito Tsuruta presents his research on mercury poisoning at the trappers hall in Grassy Narrows. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"You can't put a thermometer in the brain," says Donna Mergler, an environmental scientist and University of Quebec in Montreal biologist who has studied the effects of mercury on people living in the Amazon forests.

"Often you won't see effects in early adulthood, but they will come out later on, if you have had high exposure, because the nervous system does age and mercury appears to accelerate this aging process," she says.

Another lingering question from Grassy Narrows is the effect on the next generation, on the children whose mothers ate contaminated fish while they were in the womb.

It has long been known that the dangers of fetal exposure to mercury can be severe, resulting in long-term neurological damage.

Yet research on the influence of prenatal mercury exposure "has been pervasively delayed," Harada wrote in 2011.

"It is regrettable to think that a systematic investigation in Canada's Grassy Narrows and [Wabaseemoong First Nations] would have yielded a precious resource for humanity."

Limited scope

As it is, Harada's research is the only ongoing study of the clinical effects of mercury poisoning on the people of Grassy Narrows.  

But as field studies, they are limited in scope, and Mergler says they should be seen as preliminary investigations that demonstrate the need for more comprehensive epidemiological research.

It was the science of Grassy Narrows that has drawn the Japanese researchers back over the last 40 years.   

The current team leader, Masanori Hanada, said what they learn here can be applied to the Japanese victims back in Minamata and to other victims of mercury poisoning all over the world.

Its research that grows more acute because the mercury is still there, in the English-Wabigoon River system and in the fish at Grassy Narrows, and in waterways all over the world.

And every day, mining, logging and the combustion of fossil fuels release more, to begin the dangerous ascent through the food chain.


From CBC.ca

Japanese mercury experts push Canada to help Grassy Narrows

Mercury Disability Board denies 73 per cent of applicants

By Jody Porter,  Sep 02, 2014

  • "Everyone is suffering," says 68-year-old Bill Fobister at Grassy Narrows. He'd like to see a basic level of compensation for every resident of the First Nation, since everyone feels the impact of the loss of fish as a healthy, affordable food source. (Jody Porter/CBC)

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The world's leading experts in mercury poisoning are urging Canada to recognize, and treat, the wide-ranging human health impacts of contamination on two First Nations in northern Ontario.

The team of medical experts from Japan wrap up their week-long visit to Grassy Narrows and Wabseemoong First Nations on Sept. 2. 

Masanori Hanada

"They have the disease," says Masanori Hanada, director of the Centre for Minamata Studies in Japan. "We must think about the future, how to live with this disease." (Jody Porter/CBC)


"We had this kind of discussion 30 years ago," said Masanori â€‹Hanada, director of the Centre for Minamata Studies in Japan. "It's like deja vu."

It was Hanada's mentor, Dr. Masazumi Harada, who first exposed the extent of mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows in 1975. Between 1962 and 1970 mercury was dumped by a chemical plant at a Dryden paper mill into the river system where First Nations people caught fish, their staple food.

27 per cent of applicants receive pensions

Hanada addressed residents and members of the Mercury Disability Board at a meeting at Grassy Narrows' trappers hall last week.

The board was established in 1986 and has distributed $17 million dollars in disability pensions, according to chair Margaret Wanlin. The average payment is $400 per month.

Margaret Wanlin

Margaret Wanlin, chair of the Mercury Disability Board says 243 of the 910 people who have applied for a pension through the board have been accepted. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Wanlin said 27 per cent of the people who apply are approved for a pension.

"It's a functional assessment," Wanlin said of the approval process. "It's looking at people who have symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning, so there's no way of knowing what the right number is."

But Hanada says functional assessments aren't a good measure of who is suffering.

'They are victims'

"I repeat, repeat 100 times with government this kind of discussion," Hanada said. "They lived here, they eat the fish because they are poor. This fish was contaminated and they have neurological symptoms, I think it is enough to admit they are victims."

As several people with walkers and canes slowly navigate the dirt roads of Grassy Narrows on their way to the meeting, leaders seek mercury compensation for everyone who lives here.

"Nine thousand kilograms of methyl mercury was dumped in our river system and I feel like the way the mercury disability board is operating really dishonours my people," Judy DaSilva said in the meeting.

"I feel like all our people should have been compensated immediately, instead of us going for testing all the time."

Like many of her neighbours, DaSilva uses a cane to walk and has lost sensation in part of her face. 

Steve Fobister

Former Grassy Narrows chief Steve Fobister says the symptoms of his mercury poisoning are very similar to ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. He wants to see a local facility that could provide care for people who are suffering similar symptoms. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Former chief Steve Fobister exhibits some of the most extreme symptoms of mercury poisoning. He said his body is breaking down to the point where he has trouble walking, talking, eating and swallowing, and he's in constant pain.

"You can't even button your shirts, put on your shoes," Fobsiter said. "You become really hopeless."

'We must think of the future'

It was Fobister's two-day hunger strike in July that garnered a promise from the provincial government to review the disability board. But Fobister said he wants more than just disability payments.

He's thinking of his five grandchildren who he said exhibit symptoms of mercury poisoning, including seizures and developmental delays. 

Fobister would like to see "some kind of facility that would meet the needs of the people who need more than just home care, but hospital care, in the community."

Right now, people from Grassy Narrows must make a three-hour drive to Winnipeg for any kind of specialized treatment. 

Masanori Hanada also hopes Canadian officials will stop from looking for proof that people here are sick and start finding ways to care for them.

"They have the disease," he said. "We must think about the future, how to live with this disease.  If not, it is so sad."