Taiji, Japan - The villagers of Taiji were lab tested to have dangerous high mercury levels, likely because of their fondness for dolphin and whale meat. The village has been recently depicted in the Oscar documentary titled The Cove.
Although the levels of mercury tested are above the national average, the National Institute found no ill effects of Minamata Disease after a few follow-up tests. The tests were done on hair samples from 1,137 volunteers of the town's roughly 3,500 residents.
Director Koji Okamoto told reporters that the results suggest that there is a link between the mercury level found the the hair samples and eating cetaceans.
After the ordeal, Taiji had been considering adding a mercury test to its standard set of health checks for several years. The town government last year contacted the institute, which agreed to perform and pay for mercury tests as part of its research, according to Yoshio Kaino, a Taiji official who oversaw the program.
Meanwhile, environmentalists have adopted this mercury issue as part of their endeavor to protest Taiji's dolphin slaughter and Japan's whaling activities.
Residents with high levels of mercury were advised to cut back on eating large fish and sea mammals.
Although mercury can damage a person's nervous system permanently, however, over time it will naturally fades from the body, halving about every 70 days. To flush the mercury totally from the system, one needs to cut out from eating large fish and sea mammals for one whole year.
Joanna Tempowski, a scientist who works on chemical safety at the World Health Organization in Switzerland, said the Minamata institute was a respected institution that was trusted to provide technical assistance. Without seeing the Taiji results, she said that some damage from mercury might not appear immediately.
At some point in the future they might start to show health effects, she said.
Mercury poisoning is a sensitive topic in Japan, where a disorder now called Minamata Disease was linked to a chemical company that dumped tons of mercury compounds on the southern island of Kyushu.
The disease causes spasms, sensory loss and limb malformations in newborns and can be fatal. The pollution continued for years after it was discovered, and Minamata disease became an international symbol of environmental damage and corporate corruption.