[FOUNTAIN]Doom told by dancing catsOne day in 1953, cats in Minamata, Japan, started to dance. This dance lasted for over three years. They had gone crazy from serious brain damage. The residents were startled at the sight, but they soon realized that they also could not escape the same fate: mercury poisoning. By 1957, 61 people were confirmed poisoned and 20 died within six months of the outbreak. The culprit was mercury a fertilizer factory dumped recklessly in the river and the sea. It caused paralysis, brain dysfunction, blindness and general paralysis.
The residents moved away and kept their hometown a secret, since no one would want to hire or marry someone at risk of mercury poisoning. Since then, Minamata, a city in Kyushu, Japan, became a symbol of mercury poisoning. It wasn’t until 1968, twelve years later, that the Japanese government stopped trying to bury the tragedy and officially admitted the existence of “Minamata disease.”
On Dec. 1987, Moon Song-myeon, 14, came to Seoul after graduating from Seosan Middle School, and got a job at a mercury thermometer factory. A month later, he began to have headaches and chills. Two months later, he took a break from work and returned to Seosan. He was hospitalized as he had a fit, but since the doctors couldn’t find a root cause, he checked out after 15 days. After having a few more fits and hospitalizations, his brother begged a doctor to examine Mr. Moon. The examination discovered the “possibility of mercury poisoning.” However, the factory said it was not responsible and the Ministry of Labor told Mr. Moon to “get confirmation of mercury poisoning from the factory.” While the factory and government kept blaming each other, Mr. Moon’s condition worsened. After many twists and turns, the ministry allowed him to get medical care at a government hospital on June 20. However, it was too late ― Mr. Moon died two days later.
In the East, people thought of mercury as a wonder medicine. An ancient Chinese master of Taoist medicine chose “Zhusha” as the best medicine to be a hermit in the book “Baopuzi.” The main ingredient of Zhusha is mercury. The first emperor of the Qin Dynasty also dreamed of gaining eternal life by eating mercury.
According to a report by the Environment Ministry, Koreans have 4.34 micrograms of mercury in their blood, five times more than Americans and Germans and even higher than that of Chinese. It is not clear how harmful it is, since there is no standard. The ministry said it would set a limit for mercury content and provide a plan to cope with the problem. Should we be relieved that the government takes action even though it is belated, or should we criticize it for not acting fast enough?
by Yi Jung-jae
The writer is a deputy business news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.