[FOUNTAIN]Grim lessons in pollution’s consequencesOne day, seagulls began falling from the sky. Dead fish floated belly-up on the sea. A cat went berserk and fell dead. These strange events happened in 1953 in a fishing village in Japan’s Kumamoto prefecture called Minimata.
Three years later, villagers themselves began to show abnormal symptoms. Many experienced paralysis in their limbs, and were unable to walk properly. Their speech became slurred, their vision constricted. They began to die one by one.
The affliction that struck that village is now known as Minamata disease ― one of the first diagnosed cases of pollution-related illness. The fish the villagers ate had been contaminated by mercury discharged from a chemical factory.
Decades earlier, in 1910, what was called itai-itai disease had broken out in the Jinzu River basin in Toyama prefecture. In 1968, the cause was found to be cadmium poisoning. The disease’s name, which means “ouch, ouch,” came from the pain that accompanied the coughing and other symptoms. An upstream mining station that refined zinc had discharged wastewater containing cadmium. The poisoning impaired kidney function and caused osteomalacia, or brittleness of the bones. There is a report that victims lost 20 centimeters (eight inches) in height.
Similar pollution-related diseases have turned up in parts of Korea dense with factories. Especially in the 1960s and ’70s, the government indiscriminately attracted environmentally hazardous industries from Japan and other developed countries, and tens of thousands of residents in factory complexes suffered from poisoning. In 1985, hundreds of people in Onsan Industrial Complex showed symptoms of itai-itai disease. Environmentalists charged that Korea had traded its environment for economic growth.
Recently, residents of Goseong county, South Gyeongsang province, have been afflicted with itai-itai disease. Cadmium elements discharged from a copper mine that operated until the early ’90s seemed to be the cause.
“Sustainable development” was discussed in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. But the concept is still vague and equivocal. It is still a matter of debate how much environmental destruction should be allowed. History, though, has given us an obvious lesson: that mankind will pay the price for any development that ignores effects on the environment.
by Lee Se-jung
The writer is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.