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A Toxics-Free Future


Minamata Disease: The case of Shinobu Sakamoto of Japan

It is now more than 60 years since the Minamata disease manifested affecting many people and leading to the deaths of many more. Minamata disease is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning.

Symptoms of the disease include ataxia, numbness in the hands and feet, general muscle weakness, narrowing of the field of vision and damage to hearing and speech and also causes birth defects.

One of the victims of Minamata disease is attending the 1st meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Minamata Convention on mercury (“COP 1”), Shinobu Sakamoto is a victim of mercury poisoning.

Born in Minamata city, Prefecture, Japan, in 1956 Shinobu was poisoned by mercury while in her mother’s womb.

The disease outbreak was as a result of mercury-tainted water which was dumped into the sea by Chisso Corporation chemical plant in Minamata in Kumamoto Prefecture.

The disease affected thousands, and was formally acknowledged by the local health authority in Japan in 1956.

Mercury is a naturally occurring heavy metal and exists in three forms; elemental mercury and organic and inorganic mercury.

It is of global concern due to its toxic and trans-boundary nature as well as its potential to bio-accumulate and bio-magnify in the tissues.

Mercury emitted into the air can travel thousands of miles in the atmosphere before it is eventually deposited back to the earth in rainfall or in dry gaseous form causing adverse harm to human health and the environment.

Shinobu has had to live with the Minamata disease all her life. Shinobu is not able to walk on her own and as such she relies on a wheel chair.

Further, Shinobu’s speech is heavily impaired. Shinobu at the ongoing COP1 has implored the global community to protect women and children from mercury exposure as the Minamata disease could still be contracted especially in areas where there is mercury pollution.

The coming into force of the Minamata Convention on mercury presents a great opportunity to the international community and Zambia in particular to address the effects of mercury poisoning. Zambia is no exception from the effects of mercury poisoning.

The Zambian Government has recognised the importance of protecting its citizens from the effects of mercury and mercury compounds and has as such ratified the Minamata Convention.

David Kapindula, manager operations, southern region at the Zambia Environmental Management Agency on the sidelines of COP 1 explained that “Zambia has ratified the Minamata Convention signalling the commitment of Zambia to the global goal of minimizing and preventing the effects of mercury and mercury compounds.”

Mr Kapindula further explained that the Government through ZEMA is currently undertaking projects to map the status of mercury in the country as well as to develop action plans for the artisanal small scale gold mining sector where mercury is the most desirable reagent.