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Grassy Narrows: Still ill

Between 1962 and 1970, natives in two northwest Ontario communities sat down to daily meals of poison. Their staple food — fish — had record-high levels of mercury from a chemical plant up the river. Debate still rages over just how sick the mercury has made the people of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog reserves. There is no doubt, however, that the lingering pollution was a disaster for the natives and the lodge owners who had employed them as fishing guides. Their source of food and jobs destroyed, the bands endured years of alcoholism and despair, government neglect and, finally, healing.

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Much has happened since Japanese researcher Dr. Masazumi Harada first visited Grassy Narrows reserve. But more than a quarter-century later, the results of his tests on the reserve residents are still disturbing. Mercury blood levels are generally down. Clear signs of mercury poisoning, however, are up. And an eight-year-old girl might have been born suffering from its effects, Harada tells CBC Television's The National
. Harada did not publish his findings. He did provide a synopsis to the Grassy Narrows band. Deputy chief Simon Fobister said in July 2003 he was told that 70 per cent of the 60 Grassy Narrows and Whitedog natives tested showed symptoms of neurological disorder. They include blurred vision, slurred speech and poor muscle co-ordination. The symptoms displayed by eight people tested in 1975 had worsened, Fobister said.

. Masazumi Harada was born in Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan, in 1934. He graduated from Kumamota University Medical School. Harada was one of the early researchers of Minamata disease. He was the first to show how organic mercury can go through the placenta and affect a fetus. A professor of social welfare studies at Kumamota Gakuen University, Harada has travelled to many countries researching his mercury-related books and academic papers.

. Grassy Narrows has become one of Ontario's most outspoken bands when it comes to protecting natural resources. On Dec. 3, 2002, the band started blockading a logging road near the reserve. Residents said they were protecting the Whiskey Jack forest, a traditional trapping ground, from clear-cut logging by Abitibi-Consolidated. The company has a provincial licence to take timber from the 11,000-square-kilometre woodland. The blockade continues (February 2004).

. Health Canada advises all consumers against eating fish with a mercury concentration of more than .5 parts per million. Shark, swordfish and fresh and frozen tuna often contain mercury levels above that guideline. The ministry advises people to eat those species no more than once a week. That limit is once a month for pregnant women, women of child-bearing age and children, the guidelines state.

. Mercury is also a big concern for Canada's Inuit. Pollutants carried by air from the south tend to build up in the fat of fish and game which compromise much of the Inuit diet. A study of Inuit babies in northern Quebec released in March 2003 detected subtle nervous system and behavioural changes apparently caused by PCB and mercury contamination. The study, led by Gina Muckle of Laval University, found deficiencies in visual memory and maintaining attention.
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Sept. 23, 2002
Guest(s): Steve Fobister, Masazumi Harada
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Jo Lynn Sheane
Duration: 3:02

Last updated: September 3, 2014

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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