Japan’s toxic trials

As one contamination story draws to a close in the Pacific, another begins. Christine L Marran considers the journey from methylmercury poisoning in the last century to the radiation crisis of today.

In March, an exhausting court battle finally ended for over 2,000 victims of mercury poisoning in Japan. Chisso Corporation – a chemical company whose dumping of methylmercury in waters off the island of Kyushu from the 1930s to late 1960s caused Minamata disease, as the painful neurological ailment later came to be known – agreed to make a lump-sum payment of 2.1 million yen (US$26,000) to some 90% of the plaintiffs, plus a 2.29 billion yen (US$28.4 million) fund for the group. Central and prefectural governments will also shoulder part of the victims’ medical costs.

Half a century after Minamata disease was first acknowledged, time is running out for its victims. Their bodies are increasingly frail. The mercury that poisoned them was carried through the fish they ate and accumulated as it moved up the food chain in a process called biomagnification. In this process, persistent poisons like mercury concentrate in the upper echelons of the chain, meaning organisms at the top carry higher levels of toxicity in their fatty tissues.

Since March 11 this year, a different kind of toxin has been making its way through the veins of common food sources after Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) completed a planned dumping of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean at the site of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant. Spinach and other green leafy vegetables, milk and water have been found to have iodine-131. Fish, cows’ milk, and water have been contaminated with cesium-137.

TEPCO, Japan’s largest power company, offered an apology along with a veritable shoulder shrug. Their Faustian explanation: to avoid releasing water of even higher levels of radiation into the ocean, we must first dump water with lower radioactivity.

While numerical data is from time to time released detailing the amounts of iodine-131 and cesium-137 in the soil of Fukushima, in the seawater by the Fukushima plant, in the drinking water in Tokyo pipes, in the leafy greens of Miyagi prefecture, in the milk from Iwate or on the sides of planes flying across the Pacific, the short and long term environmental consequences of these radioisotopes is far from clear.

As with methylmercury half a century ago, Japan is once again threatened by a new and persistent toxin accumulating in its food and water. But unlike the days after mercury poisoning was discovered, Japan’s government was this time quick to respond. After the government banned the sale of numerous greens from Fukushima and six other prefectures, and after the concomitant discovery of radioactivity in Tokyo water, fears over food and water contamination quickly spread in Tokyo (and nearby countries that import food from Japan). Long lines for bottled water formed in grocery stores, ration cards for water for infants were introduced and some Tokyo residents experimented with buying food online.

Then, when the government eased the sale ban on a few greens, a new, more nationalistic response to the contamination blossomed. Enthusiastic supporters of Fukushima farmers attended farmers’ markets in Tokyo and elsewhere to buy previously banned produce. Various groups and individuals showed their solidarity by publicly eating, promoting or buying produce from Fukushima and six nearby prefectures. Television talents, sports heroes and popular singers encouraged people to follow the example of chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano and eat strawberries and greens (irresistible at 100 yen a bag) from Fukushima and outlying prefectures.

These were the sacrifices of Tokyo urbanites: questions of contamination were answered by the consumption of bargain-basement sale prices.

On March 23, the Japanese government restricted the consumption of various greens from Fukushima prefecture, as well as Ibaragi, Tochigi and Gunma. The trashing of shipments will affect consumers and producers – these prefectures together supplied 60% of the greens to Tokyo in 2010. It turns out that greens are more susceptible to radiation absorption than other fruits and vegetables and have been found to exceed normal radiation limits since the Fukushima leaks, though the figures vary according to the source.

One farmer, who had just seeded a new crop a week before the reactor accidents stood to lose 2 million yen (US$25,000). At distribution centres, boxes of greens from Fukushima and Ibaragi were marked with black felt pens: “return produce”. Tokyo shop owners complained that consumers were even choosing not to buy vegetables from prefectures lying outside the no-distribution zones. Even minimal radioactivity in the soil at Fukushima could plague farmers for years to come, threatening livelihoods and the health of the town.

Fukushima and Ibaragi prefectures were also asked to halt milk shipments because of fear of contamination. One farmer pumping milk from his cow directly into the drain lamented that he must “throw away milk like garbage”. Milk is highly vulnerable. Industrial toxins are stored in fatty tissue of bodies and biomagnification means contaminated milk leads to greater accumulation of toxins in our bodies, just as fish did in human Minamata victims.

Usually people visualise the food chain with a generic man at the top, but Sandra Steingraber illustrates in her book Having Faith: an Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood that it is not a “man” but a fetus that is the final resting place for Earth’s toxins. The placenta magnifies the level of toxins admitted to the fetus.

On mercury (which destroys brain tissues) and the placenta, Steingraber writes: “Even if the mother’s blood is contaminated with only trace amounts of methylmercury, the placenta will still actively pump it into the fetal capillaries as though it were a precious molecule of calcium or iodine. As the pregnancy continues, the mercury levels in umbilical-cord blood will eventually surpass their levels in the mother’s blood. In the case of methylmercury, the placenta functions more like a magnifying glass than a barrier.” 

Nearly as vulnerable is the breastfeeding infant. A mother in the Fukushima evacuation zone who may have been exposed to radiation and was in the process of breastfeeding during this tragic event could pass on toxins to her infant unless she chose to dump her milk instead of feeding it to her child.

Other common food sources that raise concerns about toxins in the food supply are fish and seaweed, which can concentrate radioactive elements as they grow, leading to levels that are higher than in the surrounding water. Toxic substances can concentrate in higher levels in water than on land because food chains tend to be longer there. This is why Minamata fishing communities suffered the effects of mercury poisoning so dramatically. It makes it doubly important to watch radiation levels in the ocean off the coast of Fukushima.

The degree to which cesium-137 concentrates in fish varies. For example, in Minamata, anchovies were more susceptible to the mercury than other small fish, because they proved physiologically adept at absorbing it from the water. A study of cesium-137 in the Baltic Sea after Chernobyl similarly showed discernable differences between fish species in terms of cesium-137 uptake.

Just as some fish show more or less propensity toward the uptake of radioactivity, particular human bodies are more or less susceptible to toxins. The anchovy showed a particular readiness to upload mercury. The fetus and child have shown a particular susceptibility to toxins in the environment.  

The sad truth that has emerged in my research of the role of cesium-137 in Chernobyl, however, is the fact that daily industrial toxins play a far greater role than radiation in the contamination of nonhuman and human bodies and environments. To return to the mother’s body as an example, Steingraber demonstrates that organic pollutants from industrial life are plentiful in human breast milk. They make it the most contaminated of all human foods: “Breast milk, if regulated like infant formula, would commonly violate FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] action levels for poisonous or deleterious substances in food and could not be sold,” she writes.

On average, breastfed infants in industrialised countries ingest each day 50 times more PCBs per pound of body weight than do their parents. We have DDT, PCBs, flame retardants, fungicides, wood preservatives, termite poisons, toilet deodorisers, cable-insulating materials, gasoline vapours, dry-cleaning fluids, chemical pollutants of garbage incinerations and other contaminants in breast milk. This holds true for studies of the contamination in biota around Chernobyl. Studies of cesium-137 and radioactive fallout in the wake of Chernobyl more than a decade after the tragedy illustrate that common industrial pollutants are more predominant in biota than radioactivity. 

And cleanup efforts often introduce more chemicals into the environment. In the case of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, workers have fallen ill not from exposure to the oil but to the chemicals used for clean-up. The perversity of our energy choices is heightened by the fact that an area may need to be revived through the use of chemicals that could turn out to be just as toxic as the radiation itself.

One frequent complaint among Japanese people following the Fukushima disaster was the lack of transparent data that would provide guidelines for consuming food safely. The risks involved in eating land- and sea-produced foods can be hard to predict because there are so many environmental factors that will contribute to the movement of radioactive material. But experience in the wake of Chernobyl provides a roadmap for food consumption: the testing and monitoring of vegetables, fruits, fish, animals, soils and liquids is essential.

In the post-Chernobyl landscape, for example, Belarus created 370 local public centres for monitoring foodstuffs. Long lists of limits for cesium-137 intakes were created for a whole host of foods. The official allowable amounts of cesium-137 for any number of foods like mushrooms, milk, caraway seeds, hazelnuts, apricots and figs are available. And hundreds of thousands of samples have been taken to measure current levels of cesium-137 in fungi, vegetables, fish and meat.

The Japanese government has been slow to make radiation data and information on the impacts of exposure available to the public. In fact, Fukushima parents and citizens are mounting a movement to counter government campaigns which, they argue, “lull the public into worrying less about radiation and its health risks”. Data is gradually being gathered, however, and results show levels of contamination that exceed set standards. For example, professor Takashi Ishimaru of the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology suggests that the effects on marine life of cesium and strontium, which exceed government-set safety levels in sea water near and beyond Fukushima, be monitored.

Most importantly, it was only in mid May that TEPCO revealed that multiple meltdowns had taken place at the power plant. We have, then, only recently become aware of the full extent of the damage at the Fukushima facility – and the full environmental impacts are yet to show themselves. We are now in unknown territory.

Japan must also be clear about its responsibilities to neighbouring countries. The debate around the legality of TEPCO’s decision to dump toxic water into the Pacific suggests it is important to reiterate how readily radioactivity moves and how connected bodies are to the environment. Edano has made two relevant claims here. One is that fish beyond one kilometre off the coast will be safe, and the second is that Japan is not in violation of any international laws designed to protect and preserve marine life.

But there are no such boundaries in the physical world. Strong ocean currents off Japan’s north-east coast carry seaweed, plankton and zooplankton – and fish will follow these food sources, or move as part of natural migrations. Given the ocean’s fluidity, it makes no sense to imagine that a food source like fish could be deemed safe through reference to proximity to a spot on the shore.

Japan’s government also insists that it is not in immediate violation of international law by discharging radioactive water into the sea either under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, designed to protect and preserve marine life, and the Convention of Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident.

The capacity to make such bald claims must rest on the notion that we are national bodies before we are biotic bodies – that there are clear boundaries between this nation and the next, or between this body of water and the next. But we know this must be false. Nature moves. It moves around us and through us. The process of biomagnification, anatomical particularities that lead to increased contamination of bodies, soil properties, currents in wind and water, the agency of fish and the hubris of man who believed an engineered plant to be invulnerable to natural forces, all contribute to the growth of a complex web of contamination.


Christine L Marran is associate professor of Japanese literature and cultural studies at the University of Minnesota.

An earlier version of this article was published as: Christine Marran, “Contamination: From Minamata to Fukushima”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, vol. 9, issue 19, no. 1, May 9, 2011. It is used here with permission.

Homepage image from Greenpeace shows soil being tested for contamination, 60 kilometres from the Fukushima nuclear plant.