In DepthToxicology

New mercury compound spotted in mass poisoning

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Science  27 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6485, pp. 1415-1416
DOI: 10.1126/science.367.6485.1415

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Summary

The city of Minamata, Japan, is dotted with monuments commemorating victims of an industrial mass poisoning decades ago. High in the hills, a small stone memorial honors other deaths—of cats sacrificed in secret to science. Now, after restudying the remains of one of those cats, a team of scientists is arguing, controversially, that the long-standing explanation for the tragedy is wrong. No one questions the root cause of the disaster, which at minimum poisoned more than 2000 people: mercury in a chemical factory's wastewater that was dumped into Minamata Bay and taken up by seafood eaten by fishermen and their families. At first, the chemical form of the mercury, which ultimately killed many of its victims and left many babies with severe neurological disorders, was unknown. But in 1968, the Japanese government blamed methylmercury, a common byproduct of mercury pollution. Many studies supported that conclusion, finding methylmercury spikes in shellfish, bay sludge, and even hundreds of umbilical cords from babies delivered during the time. Yet researchers at the University of Saskatchewan say methylmercury is not the culprit. Instead, the cat remains point to an obscure organic mercury compound that may say little about the broader threat of mercury pollution.

  • Joshua Sokol is a journalist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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