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The madness of mercury

The human body absorbs liquid metal mercury by the skin or through contaminated food.

Mercury does not break down. The body accumulates it.

Mercury poisoning causes skin disorders, kidney damage, hemorrhaging, or - as in

the case of port worker Pich Sovann and others in Sihanoukville - severe stomach

cramps and pains, raging thirst.

The severely infected, like Sovann, die.

Longer-term, mercury leaches into water systems where micro-organisms convert the

metal into a compound called methylmercury, the metal's most toxic form.

It enters the food chain through fish caught by man for food. It can cross the blood-brain

barrier causing irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system.

Chronic sufferers can't coordinate their limbs. They go numb, blind, mute, dead.

Pregnant women who have eaten food contaminated by methylmercury have given birth

to children who are blind, have severe mental problems and physical deformities,

and who suffer from fits and seizures.

The 19th century term "mad as a hatter" describes the disease suffered

by people who had prolonged exposure to mercury in their job making felt hats. Practically

the entire world banned mercury dumping in oceans as far back as 1972.

Now a Taiwanese company has dumped 3,000 tons of stuff contaminated with mercury

in Sihan-oukville.

The local community didn't know it happened or what will happen in the future. A

sickening possibility - even if at this stage it's only the possibility - is Minamata.

In 1932 Chisso Co. began dumping mercury in Minamata bay, a seaside city in Japan.

In the 1950s fish begun dying, and then people, but the people not before becoming

numb, their vision blurred and speech slurred, spasming in "a dance of death",

and madness.

Chisso has also cursed a second generation, more than 12,000 of whom should receive

compensation, so the Japanese government has now decided.

The government has twice told Chisso to compensate the people of Minamata: a "one-off"

payment of $130,000 in 1978 and an additional $184m in 1996.

The town is infamous as giving its name to the disease of mercury poisoning.

In Minamata now, people who think that sufferers have been greedy have sent hate

mail. Jobs are scarce, businesses and people have left, and all but gone is the fishing

industry in the bay, though after 26 years government scientists now say it is mercury-free.

By comparison to Sihanouk-ville's 3,000-ton insult is Canada's English-Wabigoon river

system, where Reed Inc. paper plant dump-ed 10 tons of mercury between 1962 and 1970.

More than 100 people developed Minamata disease there.

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