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Is there mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows?

The Story

A delegation of Japanese doctors will arrive in Ottawa tonight. They plan to present the federal government with evidence that Grassy Narrows residents have alarmingly high mercury levels in their blood. Some have complained of numbness and other symptoms the doctors have seen in Minamata, Japan. Canadian officials, however, say there is no evidence that Ontario's mercury has made anybody sick. Ontario Natural Resources Minister Leo Bernier dismisses the travelling doctors as "Japanese troubadours".

Medium: Radio
Program: As It Happens
Broadcast Date: Aug. 20, 1975
Guests: Leo Bernier, Steve Fobister, Tom Keesick, Barney Lamm, Peter Newberry
Host: Alan Maitland
Reporter: Bernard Clark
Duration: 10:35

Did You know?

• Dr. Masazumi Harada's team started testing hair and blood samples from Ontario Native residents in March 1975. They returned periodically for more testing before presenting their findings that August. Hair and blood samples showed that 37 of the 89 Kenora-area samples had blood mercury levels averaging 100 parts per billion — five times the level considered safe for humans. The visit was arranged by Aileen (Mioko) Smith, a Japan-based journalist chronicling the Minamata disaster.

• Bernier later apologized for the "troubadour" remark.
• Shortly before the Japanese experts presented their findings, some Grassy Narrows and Whitedog residents went to Japan to see first-hand the effects of mercury poisoning. The delegation included Barney Lamm, a fishing lodge owner who had shut his business doors and criticized colleagues who let tourists eat contaminated fish. After seeing some Minamata victims, Tom Keezik told the Toronto Star: "I'm afraid…All the crippled people I saw."

• Health Canada revealed in 1975 that, since 1970, it had been feeding Wabigoon River fish to cats. The resulting mercury poisoning severely affected the cats' movements. Films of the experiments show the animals staggering sideways and their back legs giving out as they try to run.

• Scientists estimated that, even with no new mercury going into the river system, it would take 50 to 100 years for the existing mercury in the sediment to dissipate. Although the area residents ingest some mercury by drinking the river water, the amounts are very small compared to the intake from eating contaminated fish.

• Mercury poisoning in Iraq in the early 1970s killed more than 400 people and hospitalized 6,000 others. Wheat seeds, treated with methylmercury as a fungicide and intended for planting, were distributed free to rural residents. Some seeds were ground into flour, baked into bread and eaten.

• Revelations about mercury's toxicity have sparked a big debate over the safety of amalgam dental fillings which contain the metal. The Canadian Dental Association currently (February 2004) says the tiny amount of mercury vapour emitted by such fillings pose no health risk to most people. Health Canada suggests pregnant women and children consider alternatives. In 2002, the provinces agreed to reduce by 95 per cent the amount of mercury-contaminated dental office waste getting into sewage systems.


Mercury Rising: The Poisoning of Grassy Narrows more