Mercury Poisoning: Minamata after 60 years and 15 years in Indonesia



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Jakarta, 12 December 2016 - A well known mercury poisoning tragedy took place 60 years ago in Minamata due to an industrial pollution. Today, more than 60,000 Minamata disease victims are still fighting for justice and acknowledgement. While in Indonesia, in the last 15 years, ’uncommon diseases’ and birth defects emerging among children in remote areas suspected poisoned by mercury used by their parents and neighbours to extract gold.

Two Minamata Disease victims from Japan delivered their testimonies this week in Jakarta stated that they are suffering from Minamata Disease symptoms since their childhood from consuming mercury-contaminated fish from the Minamata Bay. Chisso corporation cleaned up the Minamata Bay for 14 years that cost them USD 360 million.

“Sixty years after the tragedy, the number of people who live with Minamata disease symptoms are growing,” said Yoichi Tani, Secretary General of the Minamata Disease Victim Mutual Aid Society. “Depending on the susceptibility and the length of exposures to mercury, some people experienced a delayed effect of mercury poisoning. Until today, only 2900 victims certified while there are more than 60,000 people live with the Minamata Disease symptoms in Japan”.

“In Indonesia, in the last 15 years, mercury had been imported illegally, traded and used uncontrolled in 27 Provinces for gold extraction,” said Yuyun Ismawati, Senior Advisor and co-founder of BaliFokus Foundation. “We have observed many uncommon diseases similar to Minamata mysterious diseases in the 1960s ands should be considered as a public health emergency. Government should ban the production, trade and use of mercury that cause suffering to the vulnerable groups.”

Both in Minamata and Indonesia, the discovery of the strange diseases were undermined by the government. Although the source of the pollution have been identified, the activities that released mercury to the environment haven’t been stopped. In Minamata, the wastewater discharged to the canal stopped in 1970 ordered by the court.

In Indonesia, although a Ministry if Trade Decree No.75 year 2014 exist already to prohibit the importation, trade and use of mercury for mining sector, no sanction or penalties applied for illegal mercury traders and users.

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Until 2014, Indonesia was one of the largest illegal mercury importer. Between 2001 to 2014, about 200-400 tons of mercury exported to Indonesia from various countries. However, since 2015, Indonesia begun manufacturing, trading and exporting mercury mined from local primary mining illegally. In 2015, 8 countries imported mercury from Indonesia amounted 195 tonnes in total. Local mercury sold cheaply and freely through social media and door-to-door.

“Mercury poisoning ruin your life for a long time. I got exposed to contaminated fish when I was young and begun to develop the symptoms when I was 15,” said Hideki Sato. “People should protect and prevent their children from mercury exposure because there is no cure for mercury poisoning.”

“I also got exposed when I was 6 and begun to feel the numbness and constant severe headache,” added Suemi, Hideki’s wife. “You must find out and learn about the potential risk of mercury exposure in your neighbourhood to protect yourself and families from mercury poisoning.”

Prof. Takashi Yorifuji from the Okayama University stated that, “Although it may be not a simple task to establish a causal relationship between mercury exposure and observed health effects, we have much evidence on (methyl)mercury toxicity. Thus, if we know that there is mercury exposure, we should conduct some precautions before scientific evidence is established in Indonesia while conducting scientific research,” said Yorifuji.

Yoichi Tani added that, ”Countries that use mercury intentionally should establish a strong regulation to prevent further mercury poisoning before it’s too late and ratify the Minamata Convention on mercury as soon as possible.”

Tuti Mintarsih, Director General of Waste, Hazardous Substances and Hazardous Waste, Ministry of Environment and Forestry of Indonesia, after meeting the mercury poisoning victims from Minamata and Indonesia’s gold rush hotspots in her office, stated that, “We should learn from the Minamata tragedy. All stakeholders should prevent the mercury pollution and environmental degradation caused by uncontrolled mercury use to achieve mercury-free Indonesia by 2020.”

"It is the duty of the state is to guarantee the rights to live in a healthy environment of its citizens, especially children, so they can live healthy and grow to become the strong generation of Indonesia," said Yuyun, who also the IPEN lead for ASGM/Mining and the Goldman Environmental Prize 2009 recipient. "Environmental and public health should come first over the interests of the business if we want to achieve sustainable development goals. Indonesia cannot afford to have the same interventions in Minamata.”

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