201396 Minamata disease: Methylmercury poisoning and the photography of W Eugene Smith

Monday, November 9, 2009: 4:30 PM

Martin Donohoe, MD, FACP , School of Community Health, Portland State University, Lake Oswego, OR
In the early- to mid-twentieth century, the Chisso Corporation dumped methylmercury into Minamata Bay, Japan. This toxic chemical worked its way up the food chain to large fish, the staple of local residents' diet, resulting in thousands of cases of methylmercury poisoning (Minamata Disease). Chisso was slow to acknowledge its role in the epidemic and to respond to the crisis. The community response to Chisso's actions was also slow, a consequence of corrupt science, pressure from Chisso employees and local fisherman, strong government-business links, and the social stigma associated with Minamata Disease. Chisso company physician Hajimi Hosokawa conducted a deliberately lengthy and poorly-designed study of methylmercury's toxicity, in order to delay recognition of the company's role in the crisis.

Working with his wife, journalist Aileen Smith, photographer W Eugene Smith documented, in a series of poignant photographs, the suffering of victims of Minamata Disease. His photos, exhibited at major museums and published in book form, represent one of the first uses of photography to bring to the world's attention the health consequences of environmental pollution and corporate indifference to human suffering. Unfortunately Smith suffered for his activism, being beaten by Chisso employees, resulting in injuries which hastened his death.

I will describe the history of Minamata Disease, share Smith's photos, and discuss contemporary sources of mercury pollution (regrettably, methylmercury dumping continues today in the Amazon and Yangtze Rivers). I will issue a call to action to decrease mercury pollution and to hold those responsible for such pollution accountable.

Learning Objectives:
By the end of this session the learner will be able to: Explain the history of methylmercury poisoning at Minamata Bay, Japan Describe how the evocative photographs of methylmercury poisoning by W Eugene Smith helped to awaken the world to the health consequences of environmental degradation Discuss the major contemporary sources of environmental mercury pollution Explain how the public health community can advocate to decrease mercury pollution

Keywords: Environmental Health, Social Justice

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I teach, write about, and frequently lecture on environmental health and social justice.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.