Technology & Science

Ont. Ojibwa band suffers from mercury poisoning for 30 years

Japanese researcher finds Natives near Kenora suffer symptoms of mercury poisoning 30 years after pollution was dumped.

Thirty years after a Japanese researcher found Ojibwa residents living near Kenora, Ont., were suffering from mercury poisoning, he's returned, and found band members' symptoms continue to linger.

Dr. Masazumi Harada tested residents after a paper plant dumped tonnes of mercury into a river decades ago. The pollution was never cleaned up from the lake sediment and every spring the turbulance causes mercury to be re-released.

Steve Fobister used to be a fishing guide and he has eaten a lot of walleye, a traditional favourite, that were contaminated with mercury.

"I've lost half of my strength that I used to have," said Fobister. "My speech is going. I can't talk properly. I choke easily."

Fobister wonders whether he has a type of mercury poisoning called Minamata Disease.

Harada is taking hair samples from 60 people back to Japan for testing. Some of the residents were his patients 30 years ago.

He said his initial testing has shown 70 to 80 per cent of the adults he's examined showed some symptoms of Minimata disease, such as:

  • blurred vision
  • disturbances in speech, taste and smell
  • twitching
  • shaking
  • tingling in the fingertips
  • poor reflexes and balance

Chief calls for testing, financial settlement

He strongly suspects one eight-year-old girl was born with Minamata Disease. The initial results worry the community and its chief.

"I'd like to see comprehensive testing of our people," said Simon Fobister, the Grassy Narrows chief, "to find out how serious or widespread it is."

Health Canada stopped a testing survey several years ago, but said it is also interested in Harada's research.

"I think (Harada's) timing is excellent," said Paul Strohack of Health Canada. "The time lag between the initial research has been long and perhaps it's timely that he does come to the community at this time."

Chief Fobister is bitter the disaster seems to have been long forgotten.

Fobister told CBC Radio's As It Happens that the band accepted a settlement from the federal government regarding the paper company's liability. But he plans to demand the province of Ontario negotiate a settlement as well.

Harada plans to submit his final results in four months.