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A Toxics-Free Future


New Environmental Health Perspectives article on the Mercury Treaty

Environmental Health Perspectives

1 October 2013

The Minamata Convention on Mercury: A First Step toward Protecting Future Generations

by Rebecca Kessler

In July 1956, in a fishing village near the city of Minamata on Japan’s Shiranui Sea, a baby girl named Shinobu Sakamoto was born. Her parents soon realized something was wrong. At 3 months old, when healthy babies can hold up their heads, Sakamoto could not. She grew slowly and began crawling unusually late. At age 3 years, she drooled excessively and still couldn’t walk. Her parents sent her to live at a local hospital, where she spent four years in therapy to learn to walk, use her hands, and perform other basic functions. Early on, several physicians agreed on a diagnosis of cerebral palsy.

Yet there were signs that Sakamoto’s condition was part of something much bigger. A few years before her birth, dead fish and other sea creatures had begun appearing in Minamata Bay.1 Seabirds were losing their ability to fly.2 And cats were dying off, many from convulsions that locals called “dancing disease.”1 Then, two months before Sakamoto’s birth, an outbreak of an unknown neurological illness was first reported among the area’s fishing families. Sakamoto’s older sister, Mayumi, and several of the family’s neighbors were diagnosed with the mysterious ailment, which was attributed to contaminated seafood. In 1957 scientists gave the ailment a name: Minamata disease. The next year, Mayumi died of it.


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1. Grandjean P, et al. Adverse effects of methylmercury: environmental health research implications. Environ Health Perspect 118(8):1137–145 (2010);