Autism and The Echo of Minamata's Mercury Tragedy
By Lou Conte
It began with dead fish floating on the surface of Minamata Bay in the 1950’s and ended with over two thousand certified human victims and a devastated city. In 1973, Judge Jirp Saito directed the Chisso Corporation to compensate victims of Minamata Disease, a form of mercury poisoning. Chisso’s factory had poisoned the bay and the people of Minamata. The death-bed confession of Dr. Hajime Hasokowa, a doctor, researcher and Chisso employee who uncovered the company’s role in the poisoning, was critical to the court’s decision.
Many have heard about the infamous Minamata mercury poisoning incident but few have really considered the ordeal of the victims. Minamata’s tragedy is not just about mercury poisoning. It is about what can happen to and between people when the truth is not told.
We can learn from their tragedy. I believe that they would want us to.
Minamata was an agricultural and fishing village on the western shore of Kyusho, in southern Japan. In 1907, the Chisso Corporation opened a factory that produced plastics and other industrial products. Minamata prospered and became a thriving “one company” city. Chisso brought economic growth and improved the standard of living of the residents.
Mercury, a by-product of the manufacturing process, was dumped into the bay where it ultimately entered the food chain. Sea food from the bay was the primary source of protein for the city’s residents who celebrated their love of the sea in a yearly harbor festival.
The first signs of mercury poisoning were cats “dancing” – suffering mercury induced spasms actually - in the streets. Some of the cats appeared to commit suicide by throwing themselves into the bay.
Then people began to get sick. Some would suddenly shout uncontrollably and suffer slurred speech. Skills such as writing, holding chop sticks or buttoning shirts were lost. Victims trembled and had trouble walking. Some would tear at their clothes, writhing in agony. The residents had no idea what was happening and called it the “strange disease.” Many suffered a type of paralysis that contorted their limbs. Some died quickly, within weeks. Some lingered for years. Their suffering was appalling.
Then it got even worse. Children were born with horrible birth defects.
Victims and their families suspected that the sickness could be tied to the pollution caused by Chisso. Many residents blamed the victims and suggested that they had brought the disease upon themselves. Villager turned against villager. Fishermen were blamed, shunned and suffered discrimination at the hands of “more modern” neighbors. Those who questioned if Chisso was responsible for the illness were criticized for being disloyal to the company that had done so much good for the City. Questioning authority in Japan at that time was almost unthinkable. Japanese culture was built upon respect for authority and duty to the community. It was heretical to believe that those in authority would harm the community or be responsible for the “strange disease”.
But they were. Dr. Hasokowa proved it in 1959 through his research on “Cat 400” which showed that the mercury his company was dumping into the bay was responsible for the “dancing cats”. Chisso executives directed Hasokowa to remain silent. The research was secreted away in company files. The company instead produced research showing that the disease was caused by eating rotten fish or by military munitions that were dumped into the sea. The company made small “sympathy payments” to victims and moved on. Victims brought their case to government officials but the government backed Chisso.
Hasokawa, a tragic figure, stayed on at Chisso and worked in the company hospital, caring for victims, saying nothing. He is reported to have been consumed with Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and is remembered to this day as a man torn between loyalty to his company and his duty to the community.
In the 1960’s, residents of Niigata, Japan came down with symptoms similar to Minamata Disease. Hasokowa, now working with researchers at Kumamoto University, proved that Niigata victims were also suffering from mercury poisoning caused by a company called Showa Denko which had also dumped mercury into waterways. In 1968, the government conceded that mercury poisoning caused the sickness in Niigata. Demonstrations and protests re-ignited in Minamata and other parts of Japan.
But Chisso still refused to accept responsibility.
Families of victims stood in silence holding photographs of their injured loved ones in front of Chisso’s Headquarters in Tokyo. Some confronted company executives and demanded that they look in them the eye. Demonstrators stormed the gates of the factory, demanding accountability. Victims appeared at meetings of the Central Pollution Board and insisted that board members touch and hold their injured children and loved ones. This kind of social unrest was shocking and unprecedented in Japan.
The work of renowned and fearless World War II photo-journalist W. Eugene Smith captured the poisoning victims in haunting black and white photographs. Smith also captured the social strife and his photographs were published in Life Magazine. Minamata was now an international story. Chisso executives resented Smith’s work. When Smith went to photograph a meeting between company representatives and victims, he was brutally assaulted by Chisso loyalists. The beating was so severe that Smith was left nearly blind in one eye.
Ultimately, it was Dr. Hasokowa’s taped confession to court officials that confirmed the truth. While dying of cancer, Hasokowa disclosed his findings on “Cat 400” and that Chisso executives covered it up. His confession was played in the Kumamoto Court House on July 4, 1970. One can only wonder what the demonstrators in front of the Court House felt as the truth was finally acknowledged.
Chisso was ordered to pay compensation to victims of Minamata Disease. Eventually, some executives went to prison. Chisso was eventually broken up into smaller companies. Many residents left Minamata and the city’s population has dramatically declined.
As of 2001, there were 2,265 certified victims of Minamata Disease, 1,784 died. The children born with the disease are reported to be in declining health. Some still cared for by elderly parents.
Many feel that the Minamata tragedy was critical to the development of democracy in Japan. The Minamata Disease Municipal Museum serves as a memorial to the victims.
So much of what we have experienced in the vaccine-autism controversy feels like an echo of Minamata.
When the CDC withholds research showing a dramatic increase in regressive autism in mothers who received flu vaccines, we must remember that similar events occurred in Minamata. When industry leaders hold secret meetings to bury research showing a link between mercury containing vaccines and autism, we must remember that company executives did the same in Minamata. When autism research about old fathers or old mothers is published but no cause is sought to explain the skyrocketing autism rates of Minnesota’s Somali children, we must remember the “rotten fish” research put forth by Chisso scientists. When the Division of Vaccine Injury Compensation fails to disclose that so many cases compensated for vaccine induced brain damage included autism, we must remember that the government also enabled Chisso. When vaccine industry advocates shut down Congressional hearings on the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, we must remember that Chisso also had fanatical loyalists who wanted to stop negative publicity.
When truth is suppressed, journalism is censored and victims suffer discrimination and blame, we must remember Minamata.
But we must also remember that those who were vilified, shunned and even assaulted ultimately prevailed. The truth came out.
One sign held by a Minamata Disease victim at a demonstration in 1971 said “We shall pursue you to justice, and we shall not forget.”
Louis Conte is the father of triplet boys, age 13, two with autism. He is a board member of the Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law and Advocacy and the Autism Action Network. He is a co-author of Unanswered Questions from the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program: A Review of Compensated Cases of Vaccine-Induced Brain Injury.
Louis Conte is the author of The Autism War: A Novel, which will be released in April, 2014 by Skyhorse Publishing.
Carol, thank you for the additional citation. This review, Pardo et al (2007) at page 440, states that “Environment and epigenetic factors both have the ability to influence pathogenic mechanisms of cortical and neuronal function. Among environmental factors [considered associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD], maternal influences and exposure to neurotoxins and potential environmental pollutants have been the focus of attention in recent investigations.”
Now we know that flu shots preserved with Thimerosal cause exposure to ethyl mercury. We know that this is a neurotoxin. And we know that the CDC buys and distributes flu vaccines preserved with ethyl mercury.". And we know that the CDC buys and distribute flu vaccines preserved with ethyl mercury. Again see http://www.ageofautism.com/2013/08/the-cdc-buys-and-distributes-heavy-metal-mercury-preserved-flu-vaccines-for-children.html .
So CDC spends our tax dollars to expose children and pregnant women to a neurotoxin. A big difference here between Chisso in Japan and CDC in the United States is that our elected representatives in congress approve of funding for this mercury exposure.
Posted by: Jim Thompson | January 20, 2014 at 12:54 PM
Sorry, Jim. I didn't see your question. There's this, which includes one of the same authors as Vargas et al.: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1750-3639.2007.00102.x/full
Re: my first post re Hay et al. and Vargas et al. It's interesting that Vargas et al. didn't test any of the autistic brains for mercury--or if they did, they're not telling.
Posted by: Carol | January 16, 2014 at 08:07 PM
Carol, thank you for your citation, Hay et al (1972), which describes how industrial exposure of ethyl mercury chloride killed a 29 year old man 25 weeks after exposure.
Another citation, Axton et al (1972), describes how clinical treatment of a two year old boy with ethyl mercury based Thimerosal, where he was “accidentally given large amounts of Merthiolate (Thimerosal),” killed the child 30 days after exposure.
The child was given one gram of Thimerosal. To put this in perspective one gram is the weight of a medium paper clip. See Axton et al at http://pmj.bmj.com/content/vol48/issue561/ .
Now while the clinical administration of ethyl mercury in flu vaccines preserved with Thimerosal is at lower levels, there is no known threshold of brain cell death after that exposure. See http://www.ageofautism.com/2013/06/a-proposed-laboratory-neuron-toxicity-test-model-for-thimerosal.html .
And the CDC and FDA continue to refuse to prevent brain cell deaths from Thimerosal exposure due to flu vaccines preserved with ethyl mercury. In fact the CDC buys and distributes flu vaccines with this heavy metal neurotoxin. See http://www.ageofautism.com/2013/08/the-cdc-buys-and-distributes-heavy-metal-mercury-preserved-flu-vaccines-for-children.html .
So the CDC actually uses our tax dollars to distribute neurotoxins for injection into the bodies of children and pregnant women. Is that any different than what Chisso did to the citizens of Minamata?
Posted by: Jim Thompson | January 15, 2014 at 07:58 AM
I love the library by zip code!
- I never thought about going to a University library except for copies of science magazine articles since I graduated.
Love the film trailer -- well love is not the right word -- don't know what the word would be -- Now I know what they mean by a dancing cat.
Posted by: Benedetta | January 13, 2014 at 11:13 AM
Is there more recent scientific literature similar to Vargus et al?
Posted by: Jim Thompson | January 13, 2014 at 08:52 AM
Here is a site for libraries with the book “Minamata” sorted by zip codes:
Here are clips from the film “Minamata: the Victims and Their World”:
Posted by: Jim Thompson | January 12, 2014 at 10:39 PM
I looked in the literature for instances of poisoning by ethyl mercury compounds (as opposed to the methyl mercury compound written about here). In "Organic Mercurial Encephalopathy," Hay et al., (1963), a 29yo man previously in good health developed difficulty speaking and walking after working with ethyl mercury chloride. He died and his brain was dissected. The authors note that even though the cerebellum contained much less mercury than other parts of the brain, degeneration of the Purkinje cells was notable:
"The cerebellum showed small areas of porosity in the white matter but the main change affected some of the Purkinje cells (Fig. 3) which were degenerative or absent with many empty 'baskets.'"
Hay et al. summarize their findings thus: "The main neuropathological change was selective cortical damage, especially of the calcarine, parastriate, motor, and sensory areas, and of the caudal part of the first temporal gyrus. The loss of neurones was associated with marked porosity of the underlying white matter and swelling of the oligodendrocytes [a type of neuroglia--Carol]. The chemical analysis showed an especially high level of mercury in the corpus callosum."
Compare those observations to these in "Neuroglial Activation and Neuroinflammation in the Brain of Patients with Autism, Vargas et al., (2005), in which the authors say:
"Neuropathological studies have shown that abnormalities in cytoarchitectural organization of the cerebral cortex and subcortical structures, as well as reduced numbers of Purkinje cells in the cerebellum, are the most consistent findings in postmortem brain tissues from autistic patients."
(According to wikipedia, defects in Purkinje cells can lead to "ataxia, intention tremors, hyperreactivity, lack of menace reflex, stiff or high-stepping gait....")
"Organic Mercurial Encephalopathy," Hay et al., 1963:
"Neuroglial Activation and Neuroinflammation in the Brain of Patients with Autism," Vargas et al., 2005:
Posted by: Carol | January 12, 2014 at 02:17 PM
I won't be reading that book unless it is in the library.
The cheapest is 37 dollars well used going up from there to 100 to 500 dollars.
What is that all about?
Posted by: Benedetta | January 12, 2014 at 02:02 PM
Typo? "When the CDC withholds research showing a dramatic increase in regressive autism in CHILDREN OF mothers who received the flu vaccine."
Please correct. Otherwise, that is one of the best articles ever.
Posted by: Taximom5 | January 12, 2014 at 10:06 AM
"The morality that pollution is criminal only after legal conviction is the morality that causes pollution."
W. Eugene and Aileen Smith, Minamata: The Story of the Poisoning of a City, and of the People Who Chose to Carry the Burden of Courage, 1975.
Posted by: Jim Thompson | January 12, 2014 at 06:30 AM
Mercury poisoning comes with many names and sources -- Minamata, Pink Disease, Hunter-Russell syndrome and autism, via fish, teething powders, light bulbs, dental amalgam and Thimerosal.
How this neurotoxin came to be mandated for ingestion and injection as part of medical products defies scientific research and logic. What remains of humankind's motivations are ethical compromise and greed.
Perhaps if mercury maimed and killed with greater haste, public health policymakers would show more concern and diligence about banning its use. But the teratogenic and mutagenic qualities of mercury in all forms are all too easily ascribed to other sources or written off as medical mysteries. And as long as causal mysteries remain, funding for long-established chronic illness mega-charities can continue.
Posted by: nhokkanen | January 11, 2014 at 05:49 PM
Thank you for sharing this information. Interesting to learn more about this tragedy. I didn't realize it had gone on for so long. Many parallels.
I remember reading Ibsen's play "Enemy of the People" years ago. I just read the Spark Notes summary. Lots of parallels there too. Human nature has remained the same for centuries.
I have often wondered whether someone will retire from a pharma company or govt agency and spill the beans, when no longer worried about their career.
Posted by: Twyla | January 11, 2014 at 05:24 PM
I like the parallels you use between Chisso and Pharma. Here's another:
It was foolhardy of Chisso to keep dumping for decades after the accusations started. Perhaps they were victims of their arrogance. They had an opportunity to quietly cease the dumping and look to the clouds and whistle like nothing happened. Evidence trails would dry up, stunting further investigation, and they might have gotten away with it. The upside would have been cessation of the poisoning. The number of cases would be much lower than it is.
But then life is full of "what ifs".
Posted by: Carter's Daddy | January 11, 2014 at 11:25 AM
Minamata Disease is a myriad of neurological and neurodevelopmental symptoms stemming from the pollution of Minamata Bay, Japan with 27 tons of organic mercury by the Chisso Corporation. The corporation denied responsibility and continued to pollute waterways for three decades. While research findings showing mercury was the cause of Minamata disease were concealed by the corporation, a number of committees, of which Chisso Corporation employees were members, were formed to research the problem. The committees denied this information and refuted the direct link of mercury. Today, the causes of autism and several neurodevelopmental disorders may be linked to mercury. Genetic and environmental risk factors are involved, but the epidemic increase in autism parallels cumulative mercury exposure through Thimerosal containing vaccines. Children with autism have a decreased detoxification capacity with a higher mercury exposure during pregnancy due to maternal dental amalgam and Thimerosal containing immunoglobulin shots. In vitro, mercury and Thimerosal in levels found after vaccination inhibit methionine synthase (MS) by 50%. Normal function of MS is crucial in biochemical steps necessary for brain development, attention and production of glutathione, an impor-tant mercury-detoxifying agent. Autistic children have significantly decreased levels of reduced glutathione. Numerous committees from numerous agencies have met in response to the growing evidence in support of mercury as the etiology of a growing epidemic. Research papers were created and reports generated all apparently predetermined to exonerate Thimerosal and control vaccine policy, from both within and outside the United States. Today, Thimerosal has been reintroduced back into the routine vaccine schedule with pressure from the WHO and the CDC based on the strength of what appears to be flawed and/or fabricated data whose influence remains unchecked; meanwhile, mercury exposure continues to increase the number of learning disabled and dependent children.
© Copyright 2006, Pearblossom Private School, Inc.–Publishing
Posted by: Kenneth Stoller, MD | January 10, 2014 at 08:35 PM
Thanks for bringing attention to this issue. I noticed one mistake, however. The name is "Hosokawa," not "Hasokawa."
Posted by: Kirk Masden | January 10, 2014 at 08:19 PM
Lou, what an incredible piece of historical research! It is so important to go back in history. I believe the present autism epidemic might have been avoided if evidence in the older medical literature, and historical events like those you cite had not been eclipsed by “modern” zeal with no reference to events of the past.
Carolyn Flannery, thanks for pointing out possible “protective” effects in some people. We should also consider combinations of injurious events, like oxygen insufficiency at birth followed by the hep B shot.
Evidence that even a brief period of asphyxia at birth injures nuclei in the auditory pathway, which when followed by injections like hep B will exacerbate injury to the auditory system, which must be intact for a child to learn to speak. I have found articles on many toxic substances that damage the auditory system in the same way that asphyxia does. One is the following report of mercury poisoning in Niigata:
Oyanagi K et al. The auditory system in methyl mercurial intoxication: a neuropathological investigation on 14 autopsy cases in Niigata, Japan. Acta Neuropathol. 1989;77(6):561-8.
Posted by: Eileen Nicole Simon | January 10, 2014 at 07:34 PM
Unfortunately the unaffected population here in this country does not really care enough to take a comparison between Minamata and our autistic kids seriously. A single example is Darrell Issa. He had a twinge of conscience when he had that first promising Congressional Hearing. But then when he noticed that his fellow Congresspeople didn't give a hoot, he fell right in line to join those who started yawning when the subject came up.
Minamata was different because the percentage of those affected was huge. In Minamata everybody ate fish, and every family had victims of the disease. It simply could not be ignored. And even there it took more than 20 years for the Chisso plant to acknowledge the connection between the mercury used in making acetaldehyde and the disease.
The effect of the disease was already suspected in the 1930s when the Chisso plant was built, but because in Japan the individual person is much more likely to keep quiet about illness, it took a long time (close to 20 years) to even start studying the subject.
I first read about Minamata disease in 1973 or so. The textbook I read contained a tiny one-paragraph entry. Most doctors in those days were not informed about that because Japan is a foreign country and only US studies are being taken seriously.
Posted by: Birgit Calhoun | January 10, 2014 at 06:58 PM
Powerful arguments and presentation. Thank you, Lou. We have to remember that criminals almost never voluntarily admit to their crimes. We know about their crimes and we should haunt them everywhere, where they are. While in the past, they could avoid severe punishment by claiming, they didn't know, now everybody knows and they must know it too. The longer it takes them to admit their crime and ignorance, the more severe should be the punishment. I think, they deserve death penalty for murdering and crippling millions of innocent children.
Posted by: no-vac | January 10, 2014 at 05:02 PM
Awesome but devastating article.
I have one more comment:
We need to point out that some seem to be protected from the effects of mercury until it reaches much higher doses than those who are the most sensitive. For some reason, those who are protected from the effects tend to lash out agains those who are damaged from mercury. Instead of thinking "there but for the grace of God go I" they attack us, disbelieve us, defend the culprits, etc. This happened in Minnemata as well.
One thing we can do is remind people of the science showing that some don't make as much glutathione and other reasons why some of us are more vulnerable than others. Surely the CDC and pharma know this because they so successfully exclude those of us who show markers of this difficulty processing toxins --markers such as eczema and gut issues that prove the point--! from the studies they do. Circular Logic
Posted by: Carolyn Flannery | January 10, 2014 at 03:14 PM
I wonder if there are lessons in 'civil disobedience' we can learn here. For example, bringing our autistic children to doctor conventions, to the CDC steps, and so on. To let them SEE what they have done.
Posted by: Carolyn Flannery | January 10, 2014 at 03:09 PM
And when the truth about mercury in vaccines is finally recognized, the one question everyone will ask is, Why did it take so long? It's never just about the science. It's also about who will be held responsible.
SELF-PROTECTION. . . For many, that's all that matters. It's more important than protecting the health of our children.
Posted by: Anne McElroy Dachel | January 10, 2014 at 03:04 PM
Lou .. I wholeheartedly agree the tragedy of Minamata ought never be forgotten .. as it is a prime example of the disastrous consequences whenever government and industry "conspire" .. to prevent the truth of their crimes against humanity from being revealed.
Unfortunately, throughout history .. whenever "good intentions go awry and deadly unintended consequences result" .. governments always rely upon a "delay, deny, hope they die" strategy.
Consider .. in my own lifetime .. after 50 years of "delay, deny and hope they die" conspiracies by governments desperate to hide the deadly consequences of Tobacco, Thalidomide and the Tuskagee Syphilis experiment .. to name just three of many more .. truth finally prevailed.
Just as the Berlin Wall .. without any warning .. fell overnight .. so too will our government's morally-ethically bankrupt conspiracy .. to hide the horrific truth about the damage done by putting mercury in vaccines.
Hopefully .. because of people like yourself .. that day of retribution and justice .. will arrive well before their 50 years of denial runs out.
Posted by: Bob Moffitt | January 10, 2014 at 02:40 PM
Thank you Lou. Puts a lot into perspective. Don't forget the dentists and the ADA either.
Posted by: Adam M | January 10, 2014 at 12:17 PM
No question, they will all be exposed.
Posted by: John Stone | January 10, 2014 at 08:27 AM
Thank you Lou,
This is so powerful and my response is very emotional.
Posted by: Alison MacNeil | January 10, 2014 at 08:12 AM
Thank you, Lou for writing this haunting expose. The tragedy of Minamata has always stayed with me. Those words ring so true in the epidemic of autism:
“We shall pursue you to justice, and we shall not forget.”
Posted by: Teresa Conrick | January 10, 2014 at 07:17 AM