Tag Archives: Minimata Disease

Government botched ethyl mercury safety study

LIDIA WASOWICZ, UPI, OCTOBER 20, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 20 (UPI) — Researchers analyzing new study results have concluded the government at least partly botched its job when it was assessing the danger posed by the mercury-based preservative thimerosal that once was widely used in children’s vaccines.
The story begins in the fall of 1971 with a mission of mercy to famine-ravaged Iraq. In October of that year, the country received 90,000 metric tons of wheat seed, which, intended for planting as crops, had been treated with methylmercury, a fungicide similar to yet, as new research suggests, significantly different from the ethylmercury found in thimerosal.
Rather than being put in the ground in the rural communities that acquired it, much of the seed instead was ground and baked as bread. Of the estimated 50,000 consumers of the treated wheat, more than 6,000 were hospitalized for mercury poisoning, 450 died and many pregnant women gave birth to children with mental retardation, seizures, impaired vision or hearing and other birth defects.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studied the amounts of mercury in samples of the mothers’ blood and hair and the occurrence of disability in their babies along with other toxicological information to calculate a “safe” level of exposure to the toxin.
For added protection, the agency then further divided that number by a factor of 10 to come up with limits considered safe for children receiving vaccines preserved with thimerosal.
The use of these data to formulate guidelines for the U.S. childhood immunization program was predicated on two critical assumptions: that the effects of methylmercury and ethylmercury on the human body are the same and that these do not differ between fetuses still in the womb and babies already born. Neither, it turns out, is true, scientists say.
Numerous studies have shown a greater susceptibility to poisons of the developing central nervous system of the fetus than that of the newborn, researchers say.
Putting aside the differences between the two types of mercury, that would mean the EPA erred on the side of caution, at least when it comes to shots given children, not the ones administered to pregnant women — who to this day are given thimerosal-containing flu vaccines.
As far as the two types of mercury go, other research paints a picture of beasts of a different color, and it’s not yet clear which one has a darker disposition toward causing neurological harm in babies, doctors say.
Because of all the uncertainty, the net effect on a youngster of the small amounts of toxin once commonly found in immunizations remains highly disputed.
No one denies that mercury in large doses can wreak developmental havoc and that exposure to the neurotoxin can affect maturing brains, whether in the womb or cradle. But there’s emphatic disagreement among scientists on just how much is too much and exactly what damage the child suffers as a result.
The non-profit Environmental Working Group recently challenged a long-held view of the womb as a shield against toxins. The analysis of 10 samples of umbilical cord blood from infants born in U.S. hospitals in August and September 2004 detected 287 of the 413 chemicals for which the researchers tested.
Of these, 180 have been associated with cancer in humans or animals, 217 with irregularities in the brain and nervous system and 208 with birth defects or abnormal development in animals, the environmentalists said.
The EPA itself estimates each year even before they’re born, more than 300,000 infants may be exposed to enough mercury to increase their risk of learning disabilities.
That grim conclusion is based on a 1999-2000 analysis that showed some 8 percent of women in the childbearing years of 16 to 49 had higher than recommended concentrations of the neurotoxin in their blood. Other studies showed the rate dropping to 3.9 percent in 2001-2002.
In early 2006, however, interim results released from an ongoing survey detected mercury levels exceeding EPA safety guidelines in as many as one in five women in that age group.
The results raise concern “because mercury exposure in the womb can cause neurological damage and other health problems in children,” said an accompanying statement by the environmental groups Sierra Club and Greenpeace.
The organizations tested hair samples from more than 6,600 Americans of all ages from all 50 states in what they called the largest such project ever conducted. In nearly all of the cases, the mercury source was a fish-rich diet.
bird_eating_fish.jpg
Mercury accumulates in the bodies of animals, and passes up the food chain, anything that eats fish-eating fish gets a concentrated dose
The health consequences of such eating habits are under intense debate.
Studies from the Faroe Islands, an archipelago of 18 isles in the North Sea between Iceland and Norway, have reported a possible connection between subtle cognitive deficits, such as performance on attention, language and memory tests, and methylmercury levels previously thought to be safe.
But critics double fault the research, which involved a pilot-whale-eating populace. For one, the multitude of pollutants contaminating the meat muddies the waters, both literally and figuratively, making it difficult to discern the effects attributable to mercury, they say. For another, whatever the consequences, they likely would not apply to American children, few of whom munch on Moby Dick sandwiches, they point out.
Less disputed, though still controversial, are the results of a long-running survey, now in its 16th year, of 779 youngsters born in 1989 or 1990 in the Seychelles Islands, a tiny Indian Ocean nation off the coast of Africa, whose waters are purer and menu selections more akin to those gracing U.S. dinner tables.
Other than methylmercury, there are no known contaminants in the tuna, swordfish and other ocean-dwelling delicacies favored by the locals, say the investigators from the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
Thus far, they say they have observed no evidence of harm in any of the children, who are now reaching their 16th birthday, from their mothers wolfing down an average of 12 fish meals a week during pregnancy — about 10 times the amount of seafood most Americans find palatable.
The horrifying fallout of consuming mercury-polluted fare on the fetus caught the world off guard in the 1950s during a poisoning outbreak in Minamata and Niigata, Japan.
Some pregnant women who feasted on noxious seafood gave birth to babies with severe developmental disabilities, although they themselves suffered no ill effects, raising questions of extra fetal sensitivity to the neurotoxin.
The levels of food contamination with mercury from industrial pollution — 50 parts per million — have not been duplicated since. Some 20 years later, Iraq’s tragedy spawned of tainted bread led to studies that suggested there might be adverse effects from exposures as low as 10 to 20 ppm.
The Rochester researches report fish typically consumed today around the world usually contains less than 1 ppm, and rarely more than 4 or 5 ppm.
Funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the scientists will continue their study at least until 2010 to see the Seychelles children through their teens, a time when, recent animal studies indicate, the mercury effects on learning, memory and behavior might start showing up.
More dust of controversy was kicked up by another provocative study, this one coming out of Texas. The survey of the state’s nearly 1,200 school districts noted those with the highest levels of mercury spewed by fossil-fuel-burning power plants also have the greatest rates of special-education students and autism diagnoses. Suggestive as it may be, no proof of a connection has been established.
The disputed significance of these findings aside, it’s important to note they apply to the type of mercury not found in vaccines.
Because the research cupboard for ethylmercury’s effects is virtually bare, government and public health officials have been basing their safety standards on the more studied and better understood fallout of methylmercury.
While such a crossover may seem justified, it is not scientifically validated, scientists say. In fact, they say, evidence is mounting for striking differences in the way the two compounds are distributed, metabolized and excreted.
“Methylmercury is not same as (the mercury) in thimerosal; it’s surprising how different they are,” said Thomas Burbacher, associate professor of environmental health, researcher at the Center on Human Development and Disability, director of the Infant Primate Research Laboratory at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine in Seattle and lead investigator on the first study to directly compare the blood and brain levels of the two chemicals in infant primates.
“It’s been used (in EPA guidelines) because there are no data on ethylmercury, but there are on methylmercury, which has been studied since 1950,” he added. “So you use the information that’s available — assuming it’s relevant.”
From their experiments with 41 newborn crab-eating monkeys, the investigators concluded that it’s not.
“The current study indicates that (methylmercury) is not a suitable reference for risk assessment from exposure to thimerosal,” they wrote.
(Note: In this multi-part installment, based on dozens of reports, conferences and interviews, Ped Med is keeping on eye on autism, taking a backward glance at its history and surrounding controversies, facing facts revealed by research and looking forward to treatment enhancements and expansions.)

Japan: Glacial help for asbestos victims

Masae Honma, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 14, 2006

Though six months have passed since legislation was passed to provide relief for sufferers of asbestos-related health problems, about 170 people have died while a decision on the validity of their condition was pending.
The law provides financial aid to victims of asbestos-linked diseases who are not covered by workers accident compensation, which provides aid to employees in plants producing or using asbestos only.
However, according to the Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency, which accepts applications for the aid, as of the end of August screening of only 522 of 1,160 applicants had been completed.
The government recognized 242 of the 522 cases as mesothelioma or lung cancer caused by asbestos. But the figure is about one-fourth the annual death toll from mesothelioma alone.
In 271 of the cases in which the initial procedure was finished, final decisions were held up because of insufficient medical information. The government asked applicants to receive additional medical checks in which tissues of the affected organs were removed for examination.
In June, a 59-year-old man in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, asked, “Are they waiting for us to die?” on being advised that a decision on him remained outstanding three months after he made his application.
The house in which he lived until the age of 27 was located about 50 meters from a Kubota Corp. factory, which is believed to have caused asbestos-related diseases.
The man remembered seeing asbestos fibers floating and shimmering in the air when mud alongside a river running through the plant’s compound dried out.
Though he had been in good health, he started feeling constantly out of breath. In 2003, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma and had to have his left lung removed, forcing him to quit his job.
Due to the high cost of medical expenses, he applied for aid at the earliest opportunity but received a reserved judgment. He submitted the results of an additional medical checkup, but a final decision has yet to be made.
Another man in the city, aged 54, lost his left lung after being diagnosed with mesothelioma. He continued working as his child was in primary school.
His application was also given a reserved judgment, and the man died last month.
The number of applicants who died before their applications had been processed has reached about 170.
Prof. Takashi Nakano at Hyogo College of Medicine, which will establish in November a center for mesothelioma and other diseases caused by asbestos, said judgments are reserved in many cases because diagnosing a disease as being asbestos-linked is difficult.
“Lung cancer is caused by not only asbestos, but also smoking, air pollution and other factors. So it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of each patient’s disease. Concerning mesothelioma, nearly 70 percent of the patients have symptoms known as the epithelium type. The disease is very similar to that of lung cancer caused by factors other than asbestos,” he said.
In medical institutions, biopsies from affected organs in mesothelioma cases are often skipped because the process is not necessary for treatment, though the law requires that it be done.
However, many doctors said it was hard to perform such biopsies because many of the victims have deteriorating conditions.
In the coming five years, a total of 75.7 billion yen of relief funds are scheduled to be raised from not only budgets of the central and local governments but also donations by companies that have used asbestos in the past and other cooperative firms.
The amount was calculated based on the quantity of asbestos used in the nation and the estimated number of victims.
An estimated 10,000 people died from asbestos-related diseases before the law was enacted. Bereaved family members of a dead victim in this category will receive about 3 million yen in condolence money. There have been 1,514 applications for compensation.
It is also estimated that about 2,000 people will develop asbestos-related diseases every year. Each victim will receive about 100,000 yen a month for medical expenses, and about 200,000 yen will be provided for funeral expenses in the event of death.
Judging from the estimated figures, the current number of applications is too small.
Sufferers of asbestos-related diseases said the government puts too much emphasis on the formality of medical judgments and does not pay enough attention to the reality of the patients’ situation.
The victims and their family members are now suffering from heavy medical expenses and other burdens. Delay in recognizing them as victims makes the aid system itself meaningless.
Kazuko Furukawa, deputy president of the Japan Association of Mesothelioma and Asbestos Related Disease Victims and their Families, said, “We want the medical judgment process to be speeded up.”
“Also, patients of asbestos-related benign pleural effusion and lung asbestosis are not covered by the scheme, though these illnesses are also caused by asbestos. Relief should also be given to these patients,” she said.
It should be remembered that the law came into force only nine months after Kubota revealed that many ailments were caused by asbestos from the plant, and the government quickly began searching for victims.
But if the current situation remains unchanged, the relief process will become meaningless.
The government is still unable to settle disputes over recognizing victims of Minamata disease and itai-itai disease–poisoning from organic mercury and cadmium, respectively– as results of industrial pollution.
Will the government make the same mistake with the asbestos problem? It should manage the relief system more flexibly so that victims can reap the benefits to which they are entitled.

Minamata's latest chapter: Japan Times editorial

THE JAPAN TIMES, OCTOBER 3, 2006
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the official recognition of Minamata disease, a symbol of postwar industrial pollution in Japan. But the episode of massive organic mercury poisoning is not a thing of the past. On Aug. 11, a group of 100 people who have not been officially recognized as sufferers of the disease filed a lawsuit against the central government, four prefectural governments and Chisso Corp., seeking 850 million yen in damages, or 8.5 million yen for each.
They make up a sixth group of plaintiffs in a continuing lawsuit, bringing the total number of plaintiffs to more than 1,000. An additional 4,300 people have applied to local governments for official recognition as Minamata disease victims. So there are many more potential plaintiffs.
A report on Minamata disease, submitted by an experts’ forum to then Environment Minister Yuriko Koike on Sept. 19, said it is urgent that the central government take the initiative in establishing a new, permanent framework to aid all Minamata disease victims, including unrecognized and latent victims. The government should heed the proposal and put it into effect as soon as possible.
The forum, headed by Mr. Akito Arima, a former professor of physics and president of the University of Tokyo and a former education minister, started its work in May 2005. It took a severe view of central and local government inaction in connection with Minamata disease. The report said the disease, a direct result of industrial pollution, followed the “worst” failures by the central and local governments thus far in the postwar period. It said they neither prevented or contained the disease, nor provided adequate relief to victims. The statement, based on the historical record, should serve as a lesson that government officials should keep in mind all the time.
The forum, in making concrete proposals, correctly addressed Minamata disease from the perspective of Japan’s postwar history. In addition to upholding the polluters-pay-principle in compensating industrial-pollution victims, the report deemed the Minamata disease sufferers as victims of postwar Japan’s high economic growth policy — from which a majority of the people have benefited. Therefore, it said, the government should allocate money from the general budget account to relief measures for Minamata disease patients.
In view of the historical background, the report also said the Environment Agency as well as the Ministry of Economic, Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry should be involved in pushing relief measures for Minamata disease sufferers.
On May 1, 1956, a local public health center in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, reported a “strange disease” afflicting four people who showed symptoms of an unexplained brain disorder. Minamata disease officially surfaced that day. The disease was caused by methyl mercury released by chemical maker Shin-Nippon Chisso Hiryo KK, the predecessor of Chisso Corp., into Minamata Bay.
Many people in Kumamoto Prefecture and adjacent Kagoshima Prefecture who ate fish contaminated by organic mercury developed the disease. Some people were born with the disease. In 1965, people with similar symptoms were found along Agano River in Niigata Prefecture (Second Minamata disease). It took more than 10 years before the government recognized that the cause of Minamata disease was industrial pollution.
The report proposed turning the city of Minamata and its adjacent areas into a model city dedicated to improvement of people’s welfare and promotion of environmental protection. In this context, it called for medical relief measures for Minamata disease patients, especially for those born with the disease. The Environment Ministry is requesting 3.6 billion yen for fiscal 2007 to finance Minamata disease-related projects. That represents an increase of 1 billion yen from fiscal 2006.
Despite its meaningful arguments and proposals, though, the report failed to call for a review of the government’s 1977 criteria for recognizing Minamata disease victims, which have been criticized as too severe. An October 2004 Supreme Court ruling, which spelled out more lenient criteria, has prompted a move to question the government’s criteria. The top court ruled that a person with even a single symptom of mercury poisoning should be recognized as a Minamata disease victim if he or she meets certain conditions.
Environment Agency officials pressured the forum not to call for a review, saying that any change in the criteria would sow confusion in the relief policy for Minamata disease victims. If the ministry cannot endorse a review of the criteria, it should at least implement the forum’s proposals quickly.

Tokyo's Wako University staging exhibition on Minamata disease

The Japan Times, September 19, 2006
KEIJI HIRANO
Wako University is holding an exhibition through Sept. 24 on Minamata disease at its campus in Machida, western Tokyo, aiming to show how the mercury-poisoning disease has affected Japan’s postwar society.
The exhibition is being held to mark the 50th anniversary of official recognition of one of Japan’s most serious pollution-related illnesses.
It is cosponsored by the nonprofit organization Minamata-Forum and includes a series of lectures and symposiums by Minamata disease patients, scholars and social activists. Photo and films will also be exhibited.
In one of the photo shows, some 470 pictures and profiles of deceased patients are displayed so visitors can see how ordinary people like themselves were hit by the disease.
The Tokyo-based NPO, established to hand down the lessons of the disease to future generations, has held the Minamata exhibition 17 times nationwide during the past 10 years, attracting some 110,000 people in total.
This the first time the event has been held by a university.
“As an educational and research institute, a university cannot ignore Minamata disease, which also involves political and economic factors,” Satoru Saishu, a Wako professor who heads the organizers, said at the opening ceremony.
Minamata disease, caused by mercury-laced waste water released from Chisso Corp.’s synthetic resin factory in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, was officially recognized on May 1, 1956.
Complete settlement of the Minamata issue still has far to go even 50 years after the official recognition, with more than 4,000 sufferers waiting for official recognition as Minamata disease patients. More than 1,100 noncertified patients are involved in a lawsuit against the central government, Kumamoto Prefecture and Chisso.
In a message sent to the opening ceremony, Minamata Mayor Katsuaki Miyamoto said, “We still have difficult problems over Minamata disease, including the aging of the patients and the future of congenital Minamata disease patients. I expect people, particularly young ones, to be inspired by the exhibition to think about what they should do so a tragedy like Minamata is never repeated.”
Tomie Omura, a 73-year-old Minamata disease patient living in Kawasaki, agreed.
“We felt relieved when World War II was over, but then we were hit by Minamata disease,” Omura said. “I used to think about how to die as soon as possible. . . . I hope people will not repeat this.”
At a 50th anniversary memorial service in Minamata on May 1, Environment Minister Yuriko Koike apologized for the government’s failure to prevent the spread of the disease.
The exhibition at Wako University is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is 1,200 yen for adults and college students and 600 yen for high school students and younger.

Mercury levels high in Lake Mendocino fish

CLAUDIA REED, TWN, SEPTEMBER 9, 2006
Those planning a fishing trip to Lake Mendocino or Lake Sonoma might want to consider calling it off.
In both lakes, mercury contamination in fish species at the top of the food chain now exceeds recommended safety levels, particularly for young people, nursing mothers, and pregnant women, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).
Consumption of mercury, particularly of the exceedingly toxic methylmercury form found in fish, can cause neurological damage. It’s particularly dangerous to a developing fetus and to growing children. Among the Innuit of Alaska, for example, mercury contamination in whales, a part of the traditional diet, has recently been associated with mild mental retardation in children.
Closer to home, OEHHA has issued a draft health advisory urging the public to severely limit consumption of fish caught in Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma. Since fish also offer nutritional benefits, such as low-calorie protein and Omega-3 oil, associated with reduced risk of heart disease, the agency declined to issue a total ban.
The advisory recommends women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or of childbearing age; and children age 17 or younger, eat no more than:
* One meal a week of sunfish or crappie, and
* One meal a month of largemouth or smallmouth bass.
For men and women past childbearing age, the recommendation is no more than:
* Two meals a week of sunfish or crappie: and
* One meal a week for largemouth or smallmouth bass.
The advisory also recommends consumption of smaller fish (of legal size), rather than older and larger ones which have collected more mercury in their bodies. Food preparation techniques that remove the fat and organs, where mercury concentrates, can help. So can cooking by baking, grilling, or steaming, techniques that allow the juices (which contain fat) to drain away. Roe (fish eggs) should not be eaten.
The OEHHA website also offers advisories on other California lakes and rivers, and points out not all have been tested. Even fish from restaurants and stores can be contaminated.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises women who are pregnant or could become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish at all.
It’s reportedly okay for these people to eat up to one meal a week of the fish lowest in contamination, which include shrimp, canned light tuna (half that if it’s albacore), salmon (wild, not fish farmed), pollock, and farmed catfish.
Men and women beyond child-bearing age can safely eat up to two meals a week of the fish lowest in contamination. In general, the FDA says, ocean or river-run salmon is the safest fish and all others should be eaten with extreme caution.
Putting it all together, it would appear that no one should be eating fish more than twice a week, regardless of source.
The OEHHA site explains the mechanism of contamination:
Mercury released from mining and fossil fuels circulates in the environment and settles in water. In water, it’s transformed by bacteria and fungi into the highly toxic methylmercury form. Methylmercury, in turn, “biomagnifies” in the aquatic food chain reaching highest levels in fish at top. In other words, predator fish like shark absorb the mercury accumulated in the organs and fat of the smaller fish it consumes. The older and larger the predator, the more mercury it contains.
For people of all ages and conditions, direct contact with the water, even in lakes with mercury-contaminated fish, is generally considered safe.
So far, mercury contamination in fish in the United States has not reached the lethal levels experienced through industrial contamination in places like Minamata Japan in the 1950s and 1960s. There, those exposed in the womb often emerged as children with cerebral palsy or severe mental retardation. Many exposed adults suffered from loss of sensation in the hands and feet, loss of coordination in walking, slurred speech, and negative mental effects. Several hundred people died.
Similar devastation was caused in Iraq in the 1970s after seed grain was treated with methylmercury fungicide.