I have few really clear memories from being a kid. But there a handful of photographic images of human cruelty and failure that have been seared into memory. One is the execution of Ruth Snyder in 1928, in the electric chair. I wasn’t alive then, but those of you who flipped through Time-Life’s This Fabulous Century series published in the late 1960’s (bound with actual fabric suggestive of each decade) probably remember that one. She was a 32 year old mother, and murderer. Another was the photo of Nguyễn Văn Lém’s execution on the streets of Saigon in 1968. And then there was the image of Tomoko Uemura in her mother’s arms taken by W. Eugene Smith. The thin, severely disabled teenager whose body and mind was shaped by the mercury her mother unwittingly consumed while pregnant. Smith and his wife Aileen revealed to the world the tragedy of mercury poisoning in Minamata, a fishing village with a single large industry, and the consequences of unchecked industrialization. The image was published in the 1970s. Mercury flowed from the pipes of the what became the Chisso Corporation from the 1930s through the 1960s into Minamata bay, eventually contaminating fish and shellfish. Cats who had eaten the fish were the first obvious victims. Called the Dancing cats, they stumbled, drooled, and eventually convulsed before dying. But then in 1956, there seemed to be an epidemic of nervous system disorders in the locals. Children who couldn’t walk, or talk, or had convulsions – similar to the cats. Thousands of residents were affected.
Vermillion, Dragon’s blood, Quicksilver — throughout human history we have been drawn to one of the most charismatic metals, mercury. It also poisons the brain and nervous system.
Largely locked away in the planet’s crust, until humans essentially turned Earth inside-out, mining cinnabar (a mineral form) and burning coal – one of the most important sources today. Now mercury contaminants dozens of fish and shellfish species to the extent that the EPA provides advice on what to eat and how much. Pregnant women and young children should be particularly careful.
For years, when introducing mercury to students, I’d talk about Minamata, and treat it as a legacy pollutant. Yes, we all had to worry about fish, but if we paid attention to what we ate, or fed our kids we’d be OK. But just last year, while preparing for class, I realized this isn’t true. It’s not simply a legacy for some, it’s their life. The lives of the Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation, also known as the Grassy Narrows First Nation, an Indigenous nation in northwestern Ontario, were also impacted by industrial mercury releases which continued until 1970. Like the residents of Minamata they too consumed highly contaminated fish, caught from local waters. A toxic tragedy repeated, to some extent, only closer to home. Today the Nation’s youth are moving forward despite that past. They have a hopeful message. Here is their story in song.