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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, Number 21, September 6, 1976.

People Against Pollution

page 21

People Against Pollution

The landscape lies silent except for the sluggish rolling of waves. Every so often, black oil bills wash onto the shore. Except for a few twisted balding trees, no sign of life stirs on the beach. Further up the road at Changi Point — "Business as usual" at the shops along the main road. Outside a provision shop, a mother sits in a low ratan chair feeding her 12 year old child. The child gurgled appreciatively as mother spoons porridge into her mouth. Her twisted, deformed underdeveloped body jerks convulsively as she makes random grabs for the spoon. Neighbours walk by without second glances. A 'polluted child' — such sights are slowly becoming familiar. Inside the shop, a nervous doctor on TV being interviewed for newsreels reluctantly admits the possibility of yet another new disease due to industrial pollution.......

A nightmare?

No, A possible reality in Singapore.

A reality that already existed 20 years in Japan.

A reality that now exists in Canada.

In 1955, the rude shock of manmade diseases awakened the industrialised society in Japan....It started with the horrified scene of cats beginning to commit suicide in the small fishing village in Minamata. In a 1973 report for 'Kogai', a newsletter from Japan, Anthony Carter wrote:

The cats who were fed a very heavy diet of fish caught in the bay, would go into fits of uncontrolability, frothing at the mouth and showing signs of impaired motor coordination. During the final stages of the anguish before death the cats would loose all touch with the reality about them and end it all by throwing themselves into the sea.

In the beginning, the local population paid no more than passing attention to this phenomena although they found it to be most curious. It was thought that the cats had contracted some disease perculiar only to cats. But the day of reckoning was finally at hand — about 17 years ago, the first human victims of the methyl mercury poisoning began to appear in ill-fated Minamata City, Japan.

The mercury poison was found to be coming from the waste of a chemical fertiliser factory known Chisso Corporation operating in the same city. Although it did not seem like a large amount of mercury in the waste dumped into the bay, this chemical manufacturing outfit had been for years prior to the advent of the dying cats, using mercury compounds as a catalyst in certain manufacturing processes. Furthermore, what was not taken into account was the way in which natural food chains such as those existing in the ocean have a great ability to concentrate compounds, including mercury. So as a result, the fish that the local fishermen were catching was tainted with great concentration of mercury much higher than the concentration to be found in the water of the bay.

Mercury as a compound, damages the brain and spinal cord so that there is a loss of the ability to walk, speak, write and feel. In the worst cases, heavy mercury poisoning results in death of a very agonising sort. But perhaps much worse than death is to be left alive and reduced to the status of a living vegetable with only a small part of the original mental and physical capacity left functioning. Many of the victims of the Minamata disease, as mercury poisoning in Japan has come to be known, was born diseased because the poison passed the lacental barrier and destroyed their nervous system while they were yet in their mother's womb.

Today, mercury poisoning is spreading in Japan and a second set of victims was discovered and then very recently, a third set of victims has been discovered. Daily in the Japanese Press, one can find again and again articles on the alarmingly widespread extend of mercury poisoning in the Japanese natural environment; The Minamata Disease is on the march and spreading to many other parts of Japan.

Outside Japan

It has come to light that the disease has spread to other parts of the world. At a conference in 1973 in Nashville, Tennessee, organic mercury pollution in Canada was reported. Eileen Smith, an experienced photographer of Minamata Disease in Japan made investigations on the situation in Ontario and was shocked to discover patients with symptoms, closely resembling Minamata victims. These Canadian victims are the Ojibways (a native Canadian tribe) living on two reservations. Grassy Narrows and White Dog. The factory which discharges mercury-laden waste into the river along these reservations is the Dryden Paper pulp mill. (The inorganic mercury is a byproduct of an electrolytic process used to produce pulp bleaching agents.)

Inorganic and metal mercuries enter the rivers and, especially, settle in the mud of the riverbeds. Concerning how much mercury poisoning has taken place, a level of over 10 ppm was discovered in some fish which correlates exactly with that found in Minamata. As in Minamata, cats in Grassy Narrows and White Dog have gone made with the disease. When hair of Objiways consuming this fish was checked for mercury, the highest content was 100 ppm, a level which coincide with the symptoms in Minamata.

Obviously, pollution is not a problem of small and highly industrialised Japan alone. However, it is in Japan where the people have long experience in the struggle with pollution. It is an experience from which the Objiways are trying to learn and which we ourselves will find useful to understand.

Photo of a person with mercury poisoning

People vs Pollution

For about 20 years, the Japanese people, beginning with Minamata have fought against polutants. Their initial effort were met with obstacles from the companies and the government. However, through the years, they learnt to organise themselves. They demonstrated, talked at street corners, raised funds, and brought their case to court. They were finally awarded compensation. In the case of Minamata. Chisso Company (the guilty firm) is still paying out compensations. To the victims, maimed and mentally impaired for life, the compensations are scant consolation but their struggle and victory in court serve as an encouragement to other pollution victims and have succeeded in exposing the callousness and profit-mindedness of the men who own the big industries and the Japanese Government.

In South East Asia

The action of organised anti-pollution movements in Japan have forced many Japanese companies to stop operation in Japan. However, these companies do Not give up. They move to other parts of the world, especially S.E. Asia, where the people are less organised.

The March 1973 issue of AMPO reported:

"In Malaysia, Japan Agriculture Chemical, one of the largest in the industry in Japan, is operating on a joint venture. Agricultural Chemical Malaysia (ACM) in the Pulai Industrial District in the suburbs of Penang. It has recently confirmed that ACM's products include poisonous BHC insecticide, production and usage of which have already been outlawed in Japan because of strong public criticism.

The Straits Times reported on August 6, 1972 that a 16 year old girl suddenly became sick while sprinkling insecticide on a farm and later died.

On August 14, 1972. Sin Chew Jit Poh carried an article on the dispersion of Japanese "kogai" (pollution) into S.E. Asia. After referring to the Minamata Disease, the newspaper wounded the following alarm! "Environmental pollution in Japan has made its appearance side by side with her high economic growth. It is apparent that as Japanese industry rapidly invades the market of S.E. Asia, the area may be subjugated by large-scale environmental destruction. Such pollution must be stopped by all means possible. Or the damage will increase endlessly."


In Singapore, we see the recent introduction of petrochemical industry in the form of Sumitomo. Building operations have already begun and the factory is expected to start functioning in 1979.

Uni Jun, 41, assistant at the faculty of Urban Engineering at the University of Tokyo, is a spokesman and leading activist in the anti-pollution movement in Japan. In an interview with AMPO published in late 1974, he gave the following information on pollution from petrochemical complexes........

From Oil Refineries:

shipping yards or piers occasionally and sometimes continuously leak oil into the water. This discharge or waste oil from ships is not negligible.

Storage tanks: there is always some continuous lead-age or vaporization into the air. About 0.5% of the yearly through-put is lost into the air through evaporation.

Refinery plant consisting of topping tower, vacuum distillation tower, with many joints, pumps, valves etc. These are all small sources of leakage, whose total quantity of leakage is significant.

From leakages and accidents:

There is continuous leakages from the plants itself. Oil spills from ships and piers in cases of accidents is very serious. In any case almost the whole Japanese coast is now polluted by oil balls. One student spent 4 years walking around the sea-shore of Japan. He covered 95% of the Japanese coast and found oil balls everywhere. No area was left unpolluted.

From Petrochemical plants:

There are accidental discharges from storehouses or those occurring in the process of transportation as well as continuous discharge from the plant into the air and water. Accidental fires and explosions are another type of discharge which have been alarmingly frequent.

From related industries:

Related to petrochemical industries are those operating on raw materials which are by-products of the oil refining process, such as plastics, and chemical fertilisers. Many of the waste products from the manufacturing processes of these related industries are poisonous, e.g. Mercury compounds from chemical fertiliser factories (the most famous example being the Chisso Company.)

Serious Thought

The call made by Sin Chew Jit Poh back in 1972 appears to have gone unheeded. As more and more Japanese companies run away from the wrath of the Japanese people, to S.E. Asia, the health of people in this region will be more and more endangered. In the case of Sumitomo in Singapore, by 1979 this multi-national Company should gradually control about 40% of our foreign investments. Under such circumstances, it will be somewhat chancy to leave the question of pollution to the authorities, since they will be naturally, anxious to please this transnational giant. As can be seen from Japan, the protection of the people's health must be by the common people themselves.

It will be years before the effects of environmental pollution can be seen. By the time we see our next generation physically and mentally maimed and deformed, it will be too late. So, at all cost, we must speak out and stop the pollution on our environment before it destroys our people!

This article has been reprinted from the "Singapore Undergrad" Mar-Spril 1976