Among all the non-radioactive elements on earth, mercury is by far the most toxic. When ingested it attacks the brain cells and in worst cases, mercury poisoning resembles Alzheimer’s disease in its most advanced stages. Mercury poisoning can impact the brain, kidneys and the nervous system. Cardiovascular disease, infertility and high blood pressure have also been found to have been linked to mercury. Infants and children are even more at risk because their central nervous systems are still developing. Exposure to mercury while in the womb has been shown to cause children to have higher rates of brain damage, retardation and birth defects than those not exposed to mercury.

In 1948, an entire fishing village and at least two of its generations in Minamata, Japan suffered from the worst case of mercury poisoning known to man. The catastrophe manifested itself first through cats that heavily convulsed then dropping dead or falling out into sea which the villagers thought was a strange bout of cat suicides. Later however, the villagers themselves started suffering from loss of hearing, sight and not being able to tell hot from cold. Soon, the fishermen and their families manifested the cat symptoms themselves, heavy convulsing which kept on worsening, losing their motor skills before dying. This phenomenon became known as the Minamata disease, although it is not a disease at all given that it is not caught.

Seared Yellow Fin Tuna Rolled in Sesame seeds with Wasabi and Salmon RoeThe culprit of the so-called “Minamata disease” is the dumping of organic mercury or methyl mercury chloride into the Minamata bay by the Chisso Minamata factory. The toxic element is then ingested by the fish, shellfish and crabs which are the villagers’ main source of food. Heavy metals like mercury cannot be excreted by the body so it is retained in high levels from heavy consumption. Mercury attacks the nervous system and manifests as a neurological disorder much like the Alzheimer’s disease.

In more modern times, mercury poisoning occurs through the consumption of fish meat contaminated with mercury as well as dolphin meat. 75% of human mercury exposure comes from seafood consumption. In Japan, where one of the most widespread brutal massacres of dolphins takes place each year, approximately 23,000 dolphins are murdered. One particular fishing village in Japan, Taiji, was featured in the Academy Award Winning Documentary, The Cove, which details how the dolphins are slaughtered and their toxic meat is sold in markets unlabelled and was even fed to children as government-subsidized lunch meat in schools. In Taiji, Japan, the dolphin hunt goes on from September 1st through March each year, and is done by 26 fisherman driving high speed boats powered by Mitsubishi engines.

Dolphin meat in Japan is not considered a delicacy like the more expensive whale meat, yet it is available in Japanese establishments and ends up as counterfeit whale meat in large Japanese cities. The Japanese government does not properly inform the public about the dangers of dolphin meat, and does not require the mercury tainted meat to carry any particular warnings or notifications. The Japanese Minister of Health has set a provisional limit for mercury in seafood which is 0.4 ppm (parts per million). Dolphin meat, can have anywhere from 5-5000 times the maximum permitted safe level for human consumption. Furthermore, the organs of the dolphins which are the most toxic parts of the meat, are ground up and used in pet food and fertilizer. Some of the dolphin meat samples were higher than some of the seafood samples tested during the Minamata poisoning disaster, according to Dr. Shiego Ekino of Kumamoto Medical Science University in Kyushu. According to Ekino as he talked with The Japan Times Online, “Everyone should avoid eating dolphin meat. If people continue to eat dolphin, there’s a high probability of them having damage to their brains. . . . No government agency is studying the problem — no scientists in Japan want to study the subject; it’s very political.”

According to the (Japanese) Dolphin and Whale Action Network (IKAN) the number of dolphins captured or killed from 1963 to 1999 is at least 668,393 individuals. Dolphin meat is highly contaminated with high levels of extremely dangerous and toxic chemicals including mercury, methylmercury, and PCB’s, and despite this, some is sold as fraudently labelled whale meat, and some may end up as pet food.

In follow up articles, we’ll look at mercury more in depth, and will also look at how mercury consumption is an issue even in the United States. Physicians here in the US may tell you to eat more seafood but are they also informing you about what you need to know about choosing the safest types of fish and avoiding mercury consumption?