On May 1, 1956, a hospital director in Minamata, Japan raised the alarm. Almost a dozen residents were showing strange symptoms, namely difficulty with walking and speaking as well as physical convulsions. As the months rolled on, more victims of Minamata Disease were discovered. And even worse…these people were dying at a terrifying rate.
The Chaos Book Club
Today is Day 10 of the Chaos book club. Chaos is an adventure thriller along the lines of Indiana Jones or books written by Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Douglas Preston, or Steve Berry. Thanks to those of you who’ve bought the novel already. If you haven’t already done so, please consider picking up a copy at one of the following locations:
For a few years in the 1950s, Minamata Disease baffled health officials and horrified citizens. Minor symptoms included loss of muscle control, numbness, hearing impairment, and slurred speech. More serious symptoms included insanity, coma, and death. And humans weren’t the only ones with these symptoms…investigators also discovered a malady the locals called “cat dancing disease” in which cats would go into awful convulsive fits and die. In addition, there were reports of disappearing seaweed as well as dead crows and fish.
Since the strange outbreak seemed to be centered around Minamata, it was assumed to be contagious. Researchers from Kumamoto University canvased the area and by October 1956, had discovered a total of 40 victims. 14 of these victims had died, indicating an eye-raising mortality rate of 36.7%. And the disease didn’t stop there.
“Officially certified patients totaled 2,265 in both Kumamoto and Kagoshima, while the total was 690 in Niigata as of the end of March 2001. Among them, 1,784 have already died. In addition, there are 10,072 people in Kumamoto, Kagoshima and Niigata as of the end of February 2001 with applicable conditions such as sensory disorders or a high consumption of marine products who are provided individual payments of medical expenses and a medical allowance.” ~ Minamata Disease Archives
What was Minamata Disease?
So, what was the source of this strange and deadly disease? An unknown pathogen? A mutated virus?
Not by a long shot. After a thorough investigation, researchers concluded that Minamata Disease was caused by metals. That’s right. The horrid, mysterious disease that plagued Japan was, in actuality, heavy metal poisoning or to be more specific…mercury poisoning.
It turned out that a company named Chisso Corporation operated a chemical factory in the area. Beginning in 1932, it pumped wastewater into the Shiranui Sea, which encompassed the Minamata Bay. Methylmercury accumulated in the shellfish and fish that lived in the Sea. These creatures, in turn, were eaten regularly by local citizens.
Chisso Corporation failed to cooperate with the official investigation and funded alternative research efforts to identify another cause. Worse, they performed their own investigation, realized that their wastewater was the cause of the disease, and ordered researchers to cover up the results. Even worse, they deliberately installed a wastewater treatment system that they knew was ineffective in order to placate anxious health officials.
That’s not to say that Japan’s government was completely innocent in the matter. Although it knew the true source of Minamata disease by 1959, this information wasn’t released to the public until 1968. And although it realized that local citizens were still contracting mercury poisoning, it failed to warn these citizens or take any actions to stop Chisso’s continued pollution of Minamata Bay.
Minamata Disease & Chaos
I wish I could say that this story had a happy ending. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. A settlement was reached in 2010, covering 2,123 victims. However, other lawsuits continue. More importantly, many citizens are already deceased and the survivors continue to suffer due to the fact that no cure exists for Minamata Disease.
On a personal level, I find the story of this “disease” to be extremely disturbing. But as an author, I found it intriguing as well. (SPOILER ALERT) The idea of a mysterious “disease” that wasn’t really a disease seemed perfect for a thriller novel. So, when I created the strange Colony (a shantytown of “Mole People” who reside in the tunnels under New York City), I decided to afflict them with a “disease” of my own creation. I won’t give away the true source of this disease but suffice it to say, its deadly…
Slowly, I turned my head in a circle. Strange eyes stared at me from the darkness.
They started to move.
Slowly at first, then faster.
And then even faster.
Body odor and dried urine filled my nostrils. Hands grabbed at my shirt, pawed at my arms, scratched at my face.
I released my grip. Rising to my feet, I found myself surrounded by hot, sweaty bodies. Eyes flashed at me. Bruised faces quivered with anticipation.
Punching wildly, I connected hard against a fleshy surface. A face vanished but another one rose to replace it.
They pressed against me and I fell backward, blanketed by the bodies. Amongst the mess of flesh and hair, I saw tiny, revolting details.
Crippled hands with bent, inflamed joints.
Clenched toes lacking nails.
Severely peeled, discolored skin.
Toothless, rotten mouths.
Who are these people?
And what the hell happened to them? ~ David Meyer, Chaos
Cy Reed’s efforts to locate the source of the strange disease that plagues the Colony leads him to a secret underground laboratory that’s been lost for decades. Well, that’s it for today. Tomorrow, we’ll be taking a trip back in time to Nazi Germany. We’re going to take a fascinating look at one of the most sinister and mysterious devices in the history of warfare…die Glocke. I hope to see you then!
Chaos Book Club
- October 17: Chaos has Arrived!
- October 24: The Story of Chaos
- October 25: The Great Train Robbery?
- October 26: Is Treasure Hunting Immoral?
- October 27: What was Operation Paperclip?
- October 28: Nazi Treasure & ODESSA?
- October 29: Do the Mole People Exist?
- October 31: FDR’s Lost Subway Car?
- November 1: Do Alligators Live in New York City Sewers?
- November 2: The Mysterious Minamata Disease?
- November 3: Die Glocke & Nazi Wonder Weapons?
- November 4: Buildering: The Art of Climbing…Skyscrapers?
- November 5: The Strange Case of Red Mercury?
- November 6: The Island of Stability?
- November 7: The Nazi Atomic Bomb?
- November 8: The Nth Country Experiment?
- November 9: Why did America really bomb Hiroshima?
- November 10: New York’s Forgotten Subway Tunnel?
- November 11: Alfred Ely Beach’s Last Secret?
- November 12: The Strange Science of Superconductors?
- November 13: What’s Next for Cyclone Reed?