Six decades after "Minamata disease" mercury poisoning was first discovered, victims and their advocates are demanding tests for food toxicity and illnesses be carried out to help identify patients.
Such tests could have greatly reduced the number of victims if done earlier, said Toshihide Tsuda, a doctor whose civil lawsuit demanding such tests was rejected by the Tokyo District Court on Wednesday.
Tsuda sued the Japanese government to demand it conduct tests for methyl mercury poisoning. He vowed to appeal the court's decision backing the government, which generally has chosen not to conduct such tests.
Minamata disease, one of Japan's worst environmental disasters, refers to mercury poisoning from eating fish and shellfish. Thousands of people were sickened or crippled by neurological disorders from the mercury leaks into Minamata Bay and nearby waters by chemical company Chisso Corp., which continued for more than a decade. Affected babies were born with severe deformities.
Advocates of the victims have been trying since 1956 for the right to demand such tests, which can only be mandated by the government.
Tsuda contends there would have been far fewer Minamata victims if tests had been done right away. Even today, such tests could help identify people suffering from high mercury levels, he says.
Japanese law requires routine and meticulous testing for food poisoning. But such testing is only conducted when the government deems it necessary. That often has been the case in smaller food poisoning incidents.
The requirement that the government order such tests is a "legal loophole," said Tsuda.
"If this is allowed, it means the government can do whatever it wants — or rather not have to do anything at all," he told reporters after the ruling.
The presiding judge ruled that Tsuda was legally ineligible to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The ruling statement argued there was no risk of the poisoning spreading and said the relevant law was not designed to certify food-poisoning victims, just stop its spread, the judge said.
Toshihiro Yamaguchi, Tsuda's lawyer, said Minamata victims could number as many as 470,000 people. Many have already died. Only about 2,200 have been officially certified as victims, often after arduous court battles.
"Sixty years is a long time," Yamaguchi said. "Many have endured suffering every day."