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article imageFirst Nation calls on governments to deal with mercury poisoning

By Stephanie Dearing     Apr 6, 2010 in Environment
Ontario First Nation communities will be joined by other Ontario residents Wednesday for a planned protest called 'A River Run.'
Toronto, ON - The protest is meant to draw the attention of the Ontario and Canadian governments to the ongoing problem caused by mercury for three First Nation communities in northern Ontario. Ontario Regional Chief, Angus Toulouse, said in a press release Tuesday the problem has been ongoing for 40 years. Calling for an end to problems faced by communities like Grassy Narrows, Chief Toulouse said "The contamination of the waters must stop immediately. Our people continue to witness the contamination of the waters and are demanding a stop to this destructive behaviour immediately. It is incomprehensible that governments continue to turn a blind eye to this situation."
The protest, called "A River Run," will take place in Toronto on Wednesday April 7. The event starts at noon in Grange Park. Protesters will then walk to Queen's Park where an address will be given by Chief Simon Fobister. The protest has been timed to coincide with World Health Day.
A study was released Tuesday by Earthroots to coincide with the anniversary of the first release of mercury into the Wabigoon River in 1962. The study, conducted by a Japanese mercury poisoning expert, illustrates the ongoing problems experienced by two mercury-affected First Nation communities. The release of mercury resulted in a complete disaster for Grassy Narrows, both economically and in human health, and the community has not yet recovered. The other community, White Dog, has also suffered severely.
Dr. Harada studied three Aboriginal communities who were poisoned with mercury 40 years ago. His is the first long-term study, and the report looks at the effect of mercury on the population over a 30 year period.
The mercury release into the Wabigoon River was deliberate, approved by the Government of Ontario. From 1962 to 1970, 20,000 pounds of mercury were dumped into the Wabigoon River.
While the mercury in the environment is dissipating, members of the two affected communities still suffer with Minamata Disease. Health Canada, however, had stopped monitoring community members because mercury blood levels had dropped to below acceptable amounts.
Harada found continued exposure to low levels of mercury over time causes Minimata Disease, even though blood testing shows low levels of mercury in the patient. Harada said health practitioners commonly rely on hair samples or blood levels when when assessing mercury poisoning, but ignore clinical exams, which he said is important for diagnosing poisoning. Dr. Harada found the Mercury Disability Board, established to administer a special allowance to qualified band members suffering mercury poisoning, had disqualified a number of people based on mercury levels in the bloodstream. Harada said a number of those disqualified were still suffering with mercury poisoning. A number of the people Dr. Harada had initially assessed in the 1970s had died before he could reassess them in 2002 and 2004.
Harada was critical of the position of the Canadian government in his report. Harada said the government was denying reality, that there are people suffering from mercury poisoning whom the government does not acknowledge at all. Harada also concluded in his ground-breaking study that continued exposure to mercury, even at low levels, over time will create Minamata Disease in patients who will not have elevated levels of mercury in their blood.
Harada's report contradicts Health Canada's statement on Minimata Disease. "... Health Canada concluded, in 1979 and again in 1999, that “While it can be stated categorically that severe methylmercury poisoning, “Minamata Disease” has not been found in Canada, milder forms of mercury poisoning, although difficult to prove conclusively, possibly have occurred. However, with the lower levels currently being found, even mild forms are unlikely to occur in adults at the present time.”
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty told press Tuesday he wanted to review the report before commenting.
The affected First Nation communities want to be allowed to participate in discussions on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement being negotiated by the Ontario and Canadian governments. The Agreement includes remediation of toxic spills such as mercury, but Ontario's aboriginal community said they are being excluded from the agreement. Toulouse criticized the the negotiations saying “The timelines that the governments are imposing do not allow for us to engage our people, nor the general public, to develop an agreement aimed at protecting the waters from contamination. Everyone needs to be aware of what the Ontario and Canadian governments are doing and how it will affect the waters --- both now and in the future."
A study published in 2009, Index of Congenital Minamata Disease in Canadian Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes: An Eco-Social Epidemiological Approach, claimed Canadian and United States government were failing to protect people from the effects of mercury poisoning.
Grassy Narrows and White Dog would like better compensation and supports, including permanent monitoring of residents, to help them recover from the mercury poisoning. Important to the communities is an acknowledgement from the federal government of the poisoning. Finally, they ask that all levels of government work to prevent further contamination of Ontario's water with toxic metals and chemicals.
A public meeting is being held Tuesday evening at 6:30 pm in Toronto to further discuss the issue. You can find the meeting at the Steel Worker's Hall, 25 Cecil Street (south of Spadina). Greenpeace is assisting with the meeting and Wednesday's protest.
More about First nations, Mercury poisoning, Grassy narrows, Minimata disease, Health canada
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