Mercury Poisoning in Grassy Narrows worse than ever

by April 6, 2010
 

The health impacts of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows people are worse now than in the 1970's, says a newly translated health study by the world renowned Japanese mercury expert Dr. Harada Masazumi.

The translated study (PDF) was released today, April 6, 2010, exactly 40 years after the Ontario government banned fishing on the Wabigoon River due to high level mercury contamination by the Dryden paper mill.

The unprecedented study found that, even with the decreased levels of mercury found in the Wabigoon River today, the people of Grassy Narrows are suffering from mercury poisoning now more than ever--and the Ontario and Federal governments are doing nothing about it.

Dr. Harada, a Professor at Kumamoto Gakuen University, Dr. Harada played a key role in exposing mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan. He first visited Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations in 1975, ultimately revealing that people from both communities had mercury levels three and seven times higher than Health Canada's guidelines.

Dr. Harada returned 29 years later, in 2004 to perform another study--only to find that 43 percent of his original patients in Grassy Narrows had died.

The study confirms that the People of Grassy Narrows are still being poisoned. Dr. Harada and his team found "60 cases of Minamata Disease (34.2% of total examinees, excluding people 10 years old and younger), 54 cases (30.8%) of Minamata disease with complications and 25 cases (14.2%) of possible Minamata Disease for a total of 139 cases (79.4%)." Each patient exhibited one or more symptoms associated with Minimata Disease, including tunnel vision, loss of coordination, tremors, loss of balance, speech impairments and loss of sensation (feeling) in the extremities.

As disturbing as the health study is, it pales in comparison to the Ontario and Federal Government's neglect of the 40-year-old health crisis.

For instance, only 38 percent of the Mercury waste victims have been acknowledged by the Mercury Disability Board (MDB) which was formed in 2007 to carry out the terms of the 1985 settlement between the two governments, Whitedog and Grassy Narrows First Nations, and the two companies responsible for contaminating the river system. (Wabauskang First Nation, however, was excluded from the settlement even though they, too, were gravely effected by mercury exposure).

Of the remaining 62 percent of Dr. Harada's, 77 people had applied for disability benefits but they were rejected by the MDB. Another 7 applications were suspended, and 47 patients had not applied.

Those who have been acknowledged by the Disability Board--819 adults and 88 children--receive a meager $250 to $800 a month for a lifetime of suffering.

Further, "Health Canada [has] stopped testing for mercury in Grassy Narrows residents claiming that it was no longer a problem because mercury levels have fallen below the Health Canada safety guideline," notes a recent press statement (PDF). If anything, the decision shows just how weak Health Canada's safety guidelines are, given the results of Dr Harada's study.

"How can we have trust, and reconciliation when the government of Ontario walks away from their responsibility to make things right about the mercury pollution they permitted," asks Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister. "Our grassroots people are still suffering the affects on their health and livelihood from this poison in the water. It is no wonder they are out there on the blockades. The province needs to come back to the table to resolve the mercury issue."

“The mills take from our forest, and then give us back disease and sickness and death,” explained Judy Da Silva, a grassroots mother and blockader from Grassy Narrows. “Our people have suffered for 40 years from mercury poisoning, and now this sickness is being passed on to our children in the womb. We must stop the mills from destroying our forests, our water, and our culture for the survival of all people.”

Underlying the government's failings--their avoidance and complicity in the suffering of Grassy Narrows (which reaches all the way up to the Prime Minister and Governor General)--the stage is still set for another pollution disaster in Canada.

This was made clear by the Auditor General of Canada, Ms. Sheila Fraser, in her 2009 Fall Report.

According to the Report, there are next to no federal regulations in Canada to environmentally protect any reserve lands, including Grassy Narrows.

If such regulations existed, the Dryden Mill would have never been allowed to dump its 20,000 pounds of mercury waste into the Wabigoon River anymore than they could have dump it onto the steps of Parliament.

It makes Canada's obligation to consult and accommodate First Nations even more important, even if that obligation is often buried by the government.

It is one of the land's only two defences until Canada can stand on its own two feet; this is, without needing its policy of molesting, disabling sacrificing, and buying off Indigenous People to do business.