Uncertainty, Fear, & Mercury at Minamata: A Brief Overview

The tragic mercury poisoning epidemic at Minamata, Japan, serves as one of the critical first chapters in the history of the Toxic Century. The mercury spill in Minamata Bay in the 1950s constitutes one of the first expressions of the new landscapes that typify the Toxic Century. From 1932 to 1967, the Chisso Chemical Plant dumped mercury into the bay, from which local villagers subsisted on a fish-heavy diet. By the early 1950s, a growing number of animals and then residents were afflicted with a mysterious disease that flummoxed medical experts. Most typically, the symptoms involved debilitating damage to their nervous system. While researchers at Kumamoto University were able to identify heavy metal poisoning, it took some time before they could point to methyl mercury with confidence. (Minamata disease symptoms were first observed in humans in 1953; in 1959, studies definitively concluded that methyl mercury was the source).

Uncertainty ruled the early response. Hospitals quarantined sick patients, concerned that their ailment was contagious. “Whenever a new patient was identified,” Akio Mishima reported in Bitter Sea, “white-coated public health inspectors hurried to his or her house to disinfect every nook and cranny.” And still the fishing community ate the fish from the bay. Kibyo—strange illness—the locals said, when another neighbour showed symptoms. In historical circles, we resist talking about passive victims, but the hapless not-knowingness of the early stages of the Minamata outbreak can be framed in a manner that would impress Alfred Hitchcock.

Fear: the delay in discovering acute mercury poisoning was the source of Kibyo provoked fear around not knowing the source of the ailment. Subsequent victims also expressed fears about dying. Another form of fear manifests itself in the cultural response to victimhood. As science pointed toward the bay and the fish therein as the source of Minamata disease, divisions within the community arose between the afflicted and the fishermen who depended upon the bay for their livelihood. Patients’ families seeking compensation suffered discrimination from their neighbours. This ostracism also stimulated new forms of fear.

The Toxic Century: An Organizing Principle

I thought I’d written this post already. For more than a year I have been organizing my research agenda around the Toxic Century—a period, post-World War II, in which a host of toxic chemicals proliferated the physical environment and created a series of health concerns. My introductory summary in a grant proposal, submitted last year:

We live in a toxic century. Each of us is a walking, breathing artifact of humanity’s toxic trespasses into nature. Unwittingly or not, we are all carrying a chemical cocktail in our blood, our bones, and our tissue, which constitutes the problematic legacy of persistent organic pollutants. This project is a history of that century from within, where “within” refers to the fact that we are still living in the toxic century—it begins after World War II—but also that this is an embodied history, which explores the history of the toxins we carry around inside us.

Persistent organic pollutants, such as synthetic pesticides, plastics, and PCBs, defy environmental degradation. As a result they pose considerable risks to human and environmental health insofar as they are able to move great distances from their points of origin and because they tend to magnify up the food chain and accumulate in human and animal tissue. They are a by-product of the chemical revolution that began at the end of the 19th century and proliferated in the marketplace in the years immediately following World War II. As carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, persistent organic pollutants have become the ominous centrepiece of the global toxic story that continues to haunt us.

The toxic century refers to the contamination of the entire planet. The synthetic chemicals defining this century have become a ubiquitous feature of the human footprint on the global landscape. More than 350 of them have been identified in the Great Lakes, where they would persist, even if their emission were halted tomorrow. They also have demonstrated a distinct capacity to travel over great distances in waterways, in the atmosphere, in our mobile bodies. Multiple chlorinated chemical by-products have been located in measurable quantities in the Canadian Arctic and over the Atlantic Ocean, for example, thousands of kilometers from their point of manufacture.

As a history of persistent organic pollutants and their science in a global context, this project first explores the manufacture and proliferation of toxic chemicals before concentrating on the post-World War II environmental science that raised alarms about their threats to human health and ecological integrity. In this manner, the project merges environmental politics with public health and toxicology to uncover the scale and scope of our toxic crisis, putting special emphasis on the emergence of environmental toxicology as a hybrid discipline designed to confront the uncertainty that has driven so much of the recent history of chemical harm. And it helps readers understand that, since World War II, a variety of military and industrial practices have introduced new chemicals into the environment and into our bodies, many of which pose serious health risks and have wrought damage to the physical environment, the extent of which we do not even know. This project aims to ensure that even if the damage remains uncertain, our understanding of the history that produced these problems—and the history of efforts to repair them—should not.

Over the past year, I moved away from the idea of drafting a project on the Toxic Century writ large. Instead, my interest in toxic fear is an avenue of inquiry within this framework. Further, the idea of telling “history from within,” provides a context for linking the Toxic Century to my other interests in the history of the future. Another angle I mean to pursue involves investigating the history of disaster science, which explicitly links toxics and the future around ideas of planning and anticipating environmental contamination.

Previewing HISTORY 1EE3: Historical Roots of Contemporary Issues

A suite of short videos introducing the parameters of HIST 1EE3, The Historical Roots of Contemporary Issues, on offer at McMaster University during the Fall 2014 semester. The course will focus on the toxic century and examine the nature of hazardous chemicals in our environment. At the same time, it will introduce students to historical study and analysis, while promoting digital research and literacy skills. Feel free to contact me directly for further questions (egan (at) mcmaster.ca).


On teaching & research:

On history’s relevance:

About the course:

Course topics & themes:

Course objectives:

An Environmental History of Fear

This blog has been dormant much too long, and I can only plead being drawn in too many directions and none of them in enough depth to generate substantive writing (or time for communicating here) to warrant sharing. Which isn’t entirely true, but will serve as vague justification.

I have been thinking about and drafting a new project, which is slight departure from the mercury project. It proposes to examine the toxic century (the period since 1945) and the global proliferation of chemical pollutants. I will try to expand and articulate its scope and intent in subsequent posts, but wanted to share a brief abstract for one section, which tries to identify chemical uncertainty as a pivotal feature of an environmental history of fear. A brief abstract below for some of these early musings. Continue reading