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Mercury poisoning still haunts Grassy Narrows community

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When Judy Da Silva saw children having seizures, language development problems and brain tumours, she knew the mercury poisoning that had plagued her community for almost five decades still existed.

It was the late 1990‘s and in spite of the government’s insistence that the water was mercury free, four contaminant studies showed evidence to the contrary.

But despite the findings, the Grassy Narrows community continued to eat the mercury contaminated fish.

“It’s part of our way of life,” says Da Silva. “You can’t just stop eating what your people have eaten for thousands of years.”

Mercury in the air eventually settles into water or onto land where it can be washed into water. Once deposited, certain microorganisms can change it into methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish, shellfish and animals that eat fish.

Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury. For most people, the risk from exposure to methylmercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. 

Researchers say the risks from methlymercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of methylmercury in the fish. 

But mercury exposure at high levels can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system of people of all ages. 

It’s been demonstrated that high levels of methylmercury in the bloodstream of unborn babies and young children may harm the developing nervous system, making the child less able to think and learn.

The Grassy Narrows mother and activist says some community residents only earn $200 a month, forcing them to rely on the fish in the lake to feed their families.

“So we want the government to acknowledge mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows, apologize and accept responsibility,” she says. 

Unlike other communities, Grassy Narrows still doesn’t have an environmental monitoring centre. 

The Ontario government’s Environmental Monitoring and Reporting Branch monitors air, water and terrestrial conditions. 

She also wants everyone who has been diagnosed with methylmercury poisoning, also known as Minamata Disease, compensated appropriately with benefits retroactively indexed to inflation.

Minamata Disease was first discovered in 1956, around Minamata Bay in Kumamoto Prefecture, and in 1965, in the Agano River basin in Niigata Prefecture. 

In 1968, the Japanese government announced that Minamata Disease was caused by the consumption of fish and shellfish contaminated by methylmercury compound discharged from a chemical plant.

Dr. Masazumi Harada, a world renowned mercury poisoning specialist from Japan, has studied the effects on the Grassy Narrows and White Dog communities for over 30 years.

In 1975, Dr. Harada found mercury levels in some Grassy Narrows people were over 3 times the Health Canada limit and levels were 7 times the limit were found in White Dog. 

When he returned in 2004, he found 43 per cent of his original patients were dead.

A 2005 study by Dr. Harada found that Health Canada safety guidelines were too weak to protect people from the long term effects of low level mercury exposure.

Between 1962 and 1970, a Dryden paper mill dumped 20,000 pounds of mercury into the Wabigoon River.

A compensation deal in 1985 amounted to merely $8,000 per resident in Grassy Narrows and White Dog. Under the deal, residents whose mercury poisoning is acknowledged by the Mercury Disability Board receive only $250 to $800 a month, according to a report published on ForestTalk.com. 

The report says “the Mercury Disability Board acknowledged only 38% of the people Dr. Harada diagnosed with Minamata Disease, Minamata Disease with complications, and possible Minamata Disease.”

“I get $250 a month from a mercury disability fund and that’s nothing,” says Da Silva. “For the health effects that we suffer, $250 a month is a joke.”

In addition to an improved compensation package and a commitment to fix what was broken, Grassy Narrows and their supporters want the Ontario government to fund a permanent, Grassy Narrows run environmental health monitoring centre, clean and restore the English-Wabigoon river system and stop the mills from polluting the water and air.

During his final visit to Grassy Narrows in 2010, Dr. Harada examined 160 people of all ages for the health impacts of mercury poisoning. The results of his study were released in English for the first time at a press conference on Monday.

Report co-authour Dr. Masanori Hanada, who spoke with the aid of an interpreter at Monday’s press conference, says that various self-reported symptoms, including difficulty seeing, insomnia, exhaustion, visual disturbances, fatigue and numbness in the limbs, were common to Minamata Disease.

The report concludes that the residents suffer from the effects of Minamata Disease. However, only 15% of those who were tested have been given some compensation.

“People have lived on the land in its pure and natural state until industry came and polluted our rivers and the fish were no longer safe to eat,” says Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister.

“Our commercial fishing was taken away and that was the cornerstone to our livelihood.”

Last spring, Fobister lost his sister-in-law who grew up at a time when people didn’t know that there were high levels of mercury in the fish. 

“That’s pretty well what people survived on,” he says. Fish and what the land provided.”

Warren White, Grand Chief Treaty 3, attended Monday’s press conference to show his support for the Grassy Narrows community.

“The environmental genocide of a people has to stop,” says White. 

“Governments, quit passing the buck. Quit making excuses because people are suffering from the effects of this environmental disaster.”

Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse says it’s a shame that even though the federal and provincial governments have known what’s been going on in Grassy Narrows for the past 40 years, they’ve both failed to act accordingly.

“We still have issues and problems,” says Toulouse. “It’s time to do something.”

Monday’s press conference was the first in a series of actions the Grassy Narrows community has planned in Toronto.

They will be joined by human rights organizations, faith communities, labour unions, environmental groups and ordinary citizens to demand justice for the Grassy Narrows community.

A discussion forum will be held at the Steelworkers Hall at 25 Cecil Street on Tuesday at 6:30pm.

On Wednesday at noon, the Grassy Narrows people will challenge the Premier to eat their local fish at a traditional fish fry on an open wood fire on the south lawn at Queen’s Park.

And finally, there will be a rally and march starting at Grange Park on Friday at noon and arriving at Queen’s Park around 1:15pm.

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