The following story diagram—or Storygram—annotates an award-winning story to shed light on what makes some of the best science writing so outstanding. The Storygram series is a joint project of The Open Notebook and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. It is supported in part by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. This Storygram is co-published at the CASW Showcase.
Growing up in New Jersey, I became accustomed to the jokes about the place’s reputation as a toxic dump. It was always the height of irony that the state’s nickname is “The Garden State.” New Jersey has the most superfund sites of any other U.S. state—114. Amidst all that pollution are a lot of people: New Jersey is also the mostly densely populated state and yet it’s only bigger than Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island.
Not far from my hometown is Berry’s Creek, a tributary of the Hackensack River, which flows into New York Harbor. Industrial waste left the 10-kilometer-long creek with the highest methylmercury levels ever recorded in a freshwater ecosystem in the United States, and perhaps the world. Regularly eat fish or crabs from Berry’s Creek and you risk severe neurological trauma.
It’s weird that I never knew any of this until I became a science journalist. The issue of methylmercury pollution rises and falls in news media. Over the years, climate change has perhaps smothered a global environmental disaster that—unlike climate change—we can effectively combat.
In “Something in the Water: Life After Mercury Poisoning” for Mosaic, Joshua Sokol introduces readers to the aging victims of the most enduring case of mercury poisoning in the world. In Minamata, Japan, corporate malfeasance led to mercury pollution that devastated the community beginning in the 1950s. Sokol takes a complex scientific subject—the toxicity of methylmercury—and weaves it into the story of the survivors who have spent decades telling their stories. From their efforts, come all global efforts to change the story of mercury pollution for the better. Whether they succeed, however, relies on people and institutions not always on the side of environmental justice.
“Something in the Water: Life After Mercury Poisoning”
From 1932 to 1968, hundreds of tonnes of mercury seeped into the clear waters of Minamata Bay, Japan, causing health and environmental problems still felt today. As the first global treaty on mercury finally comes into force, what have we really learned from this disaster? Joshua Sokol reports from Minamata.
By Joshua Sokol, Mosaic
Published September 26, 2017
(This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.)
Walking by the side of her house, Rimiko Yoshinaga points at the broad, vine-encrusted tree her grandfather used to climb. During one of the most famous environmental disasters in history, this tree stood over the calm, clear waters of the Shiranui Sea. He would perch up there and call down to say whether the fish were coming, Rimiko says.There is heavy reliance by even the most seasoned writers on ledes that include a date and the weather at the time. For example, “It’s 8 p.m. on a snowy winter evening and the dinner rush is in full force at the Tin Palace Restaurant.” Very overdone. Good call—this lede is evocative and unique to this place.
The view today is jarringlyHere, Sokol clues the reader in: Something is amiss. different. Now the steep edge of Myojin Point in Minamata, Japan, doesn’t overlook the water. Standing there now, you see roads, athletics fields, three separate museum facilities, a seaside memorial park and a scenic bamboo garden – because bamboo roots grow sideways instead of down.This little detail further signals to the reader that all is not well. It’s another clue, something a skilled writer drops here and there—often at the end of a paragraph, or at the end of a section as a cliffhanger—but here it serves the lede, propelling the reader into the story. It’s the same technique used so well by crime writers and comedic writers. For example, David Sedaris is a master at this. From “Active Shooter” in the New Yorker, July 2018: “Then came Santa Fe, Texas, where, to my family’s great shame, the shooter was named Dimitrios Pagourtzis.” Huh? Why does this name matter? I want to read on, and in the next sentence the reader figures out Sedaris is Greek. “We felt the way Korean-Americans likely did after Virginia Tech.” Telling it straight would squash the desire to keep reading.
Under all this new land is a plastic seal. And under that are millions of tonnes of mercury sludge.
Reclaimed after a long, expensive construction project, this was ground zero for a mystery illness known first as ‘strange disease’ or ‘sauntering disease’ or, ominously, ‘dancing cat disease’. Now it’s just called Minamata disease. The cause? From 1932 to 1968, the Chisso chemical factory discharged up to 600 tonnes of mercury into what was then a harbour. The factory was using the mercury to speed along a reaction that produced acetaldehyde, an ingredient in many plastics. But the company lost so much mercury in the process that it later established a subsidiary to mine it back from polluted sediment nearby.
After flowing out of the factory’s drainage channel, some of the mercury was taken in by plankton, which were then eaten by bigger things like horse mackerel, sardines and shellfish, which in turn were eaten by still bigger creatures like cutlass fish and black porgy. At every step, the mercury – a potent neurotoxin – became more and more concentrated, until it ended up between a pair of chopsticks.This imagery is so visceral, more so than writing it straight—that is, “until you eat it.”
In her living room, Rimiko brings out green tea and local pastries, sits down with her mother and husband, and starts talking. Like almost everyone else in Minamata, and especially like the three other families living in their small hamlet close to the pollution’s source, they ate a lot of seafood in the early 1950s. They didn’t know.With these three simple words Sokol builds suspense in this paragraph, and continues to do so when he shows the reader Rimiko’s childhood photo in the next graf. Rimiko’s grandfather was a fisherman – every day he brought some of his catch home. Her father had a job at the factory that caused the pollution, but he himself would go fishing after coming home at night. Her elder brother gathered shellfish and crabs.
When she gives public talks,Again, this is another clue—like the bamboo shoots growing sideways—but this clue indicates that the story is bigger than the tree and the woman who shows it to the writer, a slight reveal that makes readers want to know more. Rimiko pauses at this point of the story to show a black-and-white picture of her and her three siblings in formal clothes. Then she asks audiences to pick her out of the line-up. It’s easy – she still has the same round, open face and high eyebrows. While her siblings sport bowl cuts, her short brown hair parts in the same place today as it did then. Born in 1951, she is the youngest. She smiles during this part of the story.
The mass poisoning that happened next is famous in Japan and around the globe. It acts as a sort of first cause for mercury researchers and policy makers, many of whom have made pilgrimagesI love the use of this word because it indicates a fervor and suggests that this story is about more than just the environment, it’s about social justice. to Minamata or who have met survivors like Rimiko at international conferences. The tragedy has also given them a prime directive. Literally. With a UN treaty that governs the use of mercury, called the Minamata Convention on Mercury, they aim to prevent something like this from ever happening anywhere again.I love big statements. Rimiko’s story is but one, nestled within a much larger story about corporate malfeasance and the body politic. By telling us there is a movement to protect everyone from an experience similar those in the Minamata story, the reader knows the stakes are high and they’ll read on: Can we do it?
Since it was signed in 2013, 74 countries have ratified the Minamata Convention. It entered into legal force in August 2017. Just this week, the arrangements for its implementation are being negotiated at the first Conference of the Parties in Geneva. That’s good news, made possible because finding alternatives to mercury in industrial processes is not too difficult, says Susan Keane of the National Resources Defense Council. “It’s not climate change,” she says. “Here’s a problem where most of the world agrees we can do something.”It’s so easy to use superfluous quotes because when writing science features, there is a tendency to want to lean heavily on experts. But this quote is far from superfluous, because it highlights the absurdity of not doing something, in a way that is more powerful than if the writer had explicitly stated it.
Some six decades on, you could argue that the story of Minamata is on its way to a neat resolution. But the town’s legacy split into different branches a long time ago. It’s part parableAgain, the religious imagery here underscores the social justice side of the story.: the research Minamata inspired on mercury has helped identify other poisoning episodes, and is now culminating in an attempt to solve a thorny environmental problem. Of course, Minamata is also a real place, saddled with an immense burden and filled with reminders: memorials, old trees that used to stand over the seaLooping back to the old tree, here, reaffirms how relatable this story is to most readers. and a large population of activists and ageing victims, many of whom report that their health is now deteriorating.
To get to Minamata from Kagoshima airport in Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost major island, I take a bus and then a train that hugsSokol uses a lot of transitive verbs, which are more propulsive than intransitive verbs. (Bonus note for those who, like me, like to geek out on grammar: A transitive verb is an action verb that exerts action on an object—the train hugs the coast; the woman carries a suitcase; the child strikes a match. Such verbs are propulsive because, by definition, they perform an action on an object—they “transfer” the action, hence the name. To lean on the Oxford Dictionary: “A transitive verb is one that is used with an object: a noun, phrase, or pronoun that refers to the person or thing that is affected by the action of the verb.” Intransitive verbs, in contrast, do not directly exert action on an object—he smiled at her; she sat on the sofa; I sneezed on your food. Intransitive verbs are still active verbs. But they offer description. As such, they are more useful when you want the reader to slow down. Some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive, depending on the context. For example: She wrote to him = intransitive. But: She wrote the book = transitive.) the coast. Summer is the wrong time to go. It’s so hot and humid that the green islands out in the Shiranui Sea fade into a grey mist of water vapour. In the city itself, mountains prickledSokol also uses active verb constructions—where the subject of the verb is doing the action. This keeps the copy moving, especially when describing things. “Prickled” is a lovely (intransitive) verb choice here. with narrow cedars run almost straight into the water – there’s a small downtown and a few scattered communities crammedAgain, an active (intransitive) verb. into a network of valleys.
Right across from the central train station is the front entrance of the same sprawling factory as in the history books. Today, with a slight makeover, the sign reads JNC – standing for Japan New Chisso – which is the entity that took over the chemical business in 2011. Chisso itself now exists mainly to administer settlements. Modern Minamata, mindful of its history, has embracedNice transitive verb. an eco-friendly identity. In the 1950s, though, Minamata resembledOverall, by using transitive verbs Sokol gifts readers with a sense of motion. feudal Japan, with the entire community in orbit around the company’s castle.
Before anyone in Rimiko’s family fell ill, they started seeing what are now recognised as omens of environmental catastrophe. Fish floated to the surface, struggling, and could be caught by hand; they still tasted fine, though.Like a Stephen King novel, Sokol sets up the horror with this chilling line: Maybe disaster could have been averted had the fish not tasted fine. Then the family cat was racked with convulsions, fell into the sea and died. Hundreds of other cats, valued because they protected Minamata’s fishing nets from being chewed on by rodents, died after similar dancing fits all over town. The mouse population boomed. Crows dropped from the sky.Another religious reference—this calls to mind the 10 plagues delivered upon Egypt after the Pharaoh refused to free the enslaved Israelites in Exodus.
Rimiko was too young to remember much about when the neighbours got sick, or when her father fell ill, or when he eventually died – shivering and crying in bed – in 1956. But her mother, Mitsuko Oya, a sprightly if reserved 92-year-old, does. After her husband returned from a stay at the hospital, Mitsuko tried to help him recover the best way she or anyone knew how: by feeding him more nutritious fish from the bay. Her father-in-law, the fisherman, died the same year.There is so much going on in this paragraph, with each sentence telling a story. Also, these are the difficult details a writer coaxes a source to share to create an emotionally compelling narrative. Sometimes it’s easy, because the source has committed to telling her story no matter what, but sometimes patience, time, and silence are paramount in interviews.
To feed her children, Mitsuko took up part-time fishing and construction work. She says her most vivid memories from that whole period are not her husband’s final days but the very beginning, when he started discussing his symptoms. “He complained about [how] he cannot talk properly,” she says, through an interpreter. “He wants to talk, but the words will not come out.”
Numbness in the mouth and in other extremities, along with difficulty speaking, are some of the hallmarks of mercury poisoning. But, by now in this story, saying just “mercury poisoning” is too vague. Mercury, element number 80 in the periodic table, occurs in a variety of chemical forms. Each has its own particular character.In science journalism especially, the writer has to be cognizant of info dumps and losing the reader. This is a great transition to a discussion of mercury, what it is, and how it’s toxic. The reader can pause here, understanding the threat of mercury pollution, and is invested enough to keeping reading to find out why.
The mercury you might find as a silvery liquid in a thermometer is dangerous but not the worst form. In 2014, doctors in India treated a teenage boy months after he had secretly injected his forearm with liquid mercury in an attempt to transform his bones into metal like the X-Men character Wolverine. He recovered.What!? A disturbing detail, but the kind of information a reader might share with someone in a conversation. Again, it’s something that keeps me reading because these details are just boggling my mind.
When the same liquid mercury vaporises into an odourless gas, it’s worse: it can be absorbed through the lungs and go on to cause tremors, behavioural changes and kidney damage.
These forms are inorganic, which means that they have no carbon to tempt carbon-rich biological molecules into ill-advised interactions.
But the mercury that spilled into the Shiranui Sea and infiltrated Minamata’s main sources of protein was methylmercury, an organic form with one carbon and three hydrogen atoms attached.
In living flesh, organic mercury binds with certain biological molecules and stops them from working. In some situations this also allows it to masquerade as one of the many types of amino acid in the body, the building blocks of proteins. Because of this, organic mercury can smuggle its way through erstwhile protective walls like the placenta and the blood–brain barrier. And it sticks around in a body for months, long enough to get concentrated into higher and higher doses through the food chain.Chemistry is notoriously difficult to explain without a bit of jargon. This is an example of accuracy and ease of reading that makes readers feel smarter, not annoyed because they don’t understand. And I love the word smuggle, another active verb.
With an efficiency you might admire under different circumstances,These asides are such a sly way of noting another absurdity of the human condition: how remarkably smart the human body is, but how we are often our own worst enemies. the human gut can pull out up to 95 per cent of the methylmercury contained in each bite of fish. It enters blood cells, where it binds with haemoglobin, and some of it goes to the liver. But the real damage comes from the sizeable amount of methylmercury that makes it into the brain, where it wreaks neurological havoc in various regions. There, it slowly changes back to inorganic mercury,It is so tempting in science writing to give the reader more than what they need, and this is a great example of Sokol pulling back. What a science journalist leaves out is as important as what they leave in. which can stay in the brain for years.
If you’re enjoying this Storygram, also check out two resources that partly inspired this project: the Nieman Storyboard‘s Annotation Tuesday! series and Holly Stocking’s The New York Times Reader: Science & Technology.
The same year that Rimiko’s father died and grandfather fell ill, doctors at the Chisso factory hospital began seeing the same constellation of symptoms again and again. Numbness. Loss of motor control. A narrowing of the visual field that one victim described as like looking through a bamboo pipe. In parallel, methylmercury also caused cerebral palsy-like symptoms in children born during this period, like in the Kaneko household next door.
The mothers of children affected in this way were possessed by a haunting notion: that their babies had absorbed the toxin, sacrificing themselves to save their mothers.Like the teen who injected himself with mercury, this is again one of those details that is disturbing, tragic, and makes my heart ache. “I saw these babies with severe neurological symptoms, and at first I couldn’t believe [this was] why the mother was so safe,” says Mineshi Sakamoto, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute for Minamata Disease. Medically, this painful belief turned out to be right: in 2004, Sakamoto showed, with rats and later with people, that methylmercury flows out of pregnant mothers and into fetuses.
This all took a while to figure out,A simple transition to the next paragraph that plays a dual role at again underscoring the absurdity of it all—a major disaster that should not have taken years to figure out. but court proceedings ultimately found Chisso responsible in 1973, charging it with negligence for not foreseeing the risk posed by its wastewater. Long beforehand, in the summer of 1959, factory hospital doctor Hajime Hosokawa had been conducting his own experiment by giving Chisso wastewater to cats. When one of these – the now infamous cat 400 – developed signs of Minamata disease, he reported it to management.This highlights the depth of reporting and an eye for a detail that we can relate to, like the tree. In this case it’s an animal we know well, and it’s outrageous enough to keep the reader reading.
They ordered him to keep further experiments secret, then spent years denying responsibility as Minamata’s disease outbreak drew media attention. Backed by the national government and scientists in Tokyo, Chisso criticised researchers who blamed the disease on mercury from the factory and supported research that hunted for other potential causes, like the victim-blaming theory that Minamata residents had eaten already-spoiled fish. The corporation even staged a misleading photo-op to prove the wastewater was being safely treated.
A strong argument in the company’s favour was that similar factories didn’t seemMy one critique for this piece, and for many writers in general, is to watch the use of negative constructions. Save negative constructions for when you need to slow down readers, hit them over the head a bit, state the obvious, and let it sink in. Negatives are brakes that allow a reader to take a breath, absorb the information, and move on. to be linked to the same problems. Then, almost a decade after the Minamata outbreak, the strange disease popped up again along the Agano river in faraway Niigata in northern Japan, next to another factory that used mercury in the production of acetaldehyde. It took until September 1968 for Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare to make a formal announcement on both cases. Yes, the cause was methylmercury. Yes, it was from the factories.
The following years brought Minamata even more national and then global attention. Sympathetic outsiders moved into town from other parts of the country. In 1972, a Life magazine article by photojournalists Eugene and Aileen Smith brought chiaroscuro images of Minamata’s victims to many for the first time. Activists and patients made trips to Tokyo to press the government and Chisso for compensation, leading up to the pivotal 1973 court case, subsequent negotiations and other trials.By sharing how journalists paid attention to the Minamata victims decades ago, Sokol informs readers that there is a continuity in what journalists do. In this age of deregulation—here’s looking at you, U.S.—we will tell the same stories over and over. In this story, Sokol is continuing this tradition, from Life’s visual exposé in print to this piece in an online publication.
But for many families with one or more probable victims at home, Minamata disease was something to hide. Once meaningful settlements started to come into play after the 1973 court ruling, successful claimants were afraid of what jealous neighbours would say behind their backs. And the town’s economic fortunes still depended on Chisso. These tensions even played out in individual people: Rimiko’s mother Mitsuko had taken on construction work for Chisso, then felt torn when she found herself attending a sit-in at the factory’s gates.
Even today, patients are cautious and deliberate about the decision to come out publically with a connection to Minamata disease. Mitsuko, who won’t complain about any possible symptoms of neurological harm even now, attended a meeting or two at an activist’s house. She was out; her daughter wasn’t. “I wanted to live without Minamata disease,” Rimiko says. “I wanted to forget about the fact, even though my father, mother – they are all patients.”
Once the Ministry of Health and Welfare made its announcement, with social tensions in Minamata coming to a boil, the basic science of preventing methylmercury poisoning seemed like an easy solve by comparison. You just needed to prevent methylmercury pollution. But a young scientist at the same ministry was about to help muddy the waters.Another wonderful transition to the next part of the story, introducing a new character by hooking the reader with that last sentence, which screams: What? Who? Tell me!
It seems fair to describe Hirokatsu Akagi, now 75, as a Dumbledorean figureI love it when writers plant an image in my head through pop culture, it’s an effective shortcut for descriptions when you need to keep the copy flowing. Of course, pop culture references can be insensitive at times, so context is important. in the world of mercury science and among people with Minamata disease, who view him as a sympathetic ally. He has style: usually white or tan pants, a tucked-in shirt in a similar colour and a signature stingy brim hat, out from which pokes a ring of white hair. “Everybody knows Dr Akagi,” says Laurie Chan, a toxicologist and environmental scientist at the University of Ottawa. “Everyone calls him Akagi-sensei: a teacher.”
Growing up south of Minamata in Kinzancho, meaning literally ‘gold-mine town’, Akagi first encountered mercury as a child. “Mercury is very good play material. If you push it down, it spreads,” he says, before laughing and extending a half-serious invitation: “I have [it] here.”An unexpected detail. One of the ways to keep readers engaged is by sprinkling interesting moments with sources through the text. Also, this moment underscores the story of the teen who injected himself with mercury—not all mercury is created equal.
A retired government researcher, Akagi now maintains his own lab in Fukuro, a neighbourhood of Minamata struck hard by the disease. Stacks of old papers have precipitatedAnother lovely active verb. out over available surfaces. The walls of his side-room office are plastered with photos of scientists in conference rooms next to pictures of wedding parties next to CVs of international researchers he considers peers and friends. One such person, Swedish scientist Arne Jernelöv, has particularly high billing above his desk.This is another example of a great transition sentence from one paragraph to the next. Transitions are difficult, and in this piece they are masterful.
In 1969, Jernelöv published a scientific paper in the journal Nature, which Akagi, fresh out of pharmaceutical school and newly hired at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, read with interest. Strangely, Swedish pike had been measured with high levels of methylmercury, even though nearby factories were releasing only other forms of mercury. Jernelöv and his coauthor hypothesised that mercury could be methylated inside living organisms, setting in motion the discovery that, for evolutionary reasons that remain fuzzy even today, bacteria can convert other kinds of mercury into methylmercury under the right conditions.
Curious, Akagi started digging through the ministry’s own archive of chemical samples. He found a piece of mercury acetate, yet another toxic variety of mercury. It was so old that the label was barely legible. The substance should have been a white crystal, he says, absentmindedly sketching out its chemical formula on a sheet of paper.
But Akagi noticed a yellow layer on the surface that he scraped off and tested. Methylmercury, again. Not produced by humans, not converted by bacteria, but made in yet another new way – by light. Not only could other kinds of mercury waste be transformed into methylmercury, but they had more than one path to get there.It’s so easy to head into the weeds when writing about scientific research. This is a key bit of information on mercury pollution, but simply stated, perfect for the lay reader.
In 1972, Akagi first wrote up his findings in Japanese. “People working at companies like Chisso, and [other] chemical companies, they attack me,” he says. Industry had a major stake in inorganic mercury being safe. “They call me to discuss. So many come. Old people, like they are president or something, vice-president in the company.” Only 30 years old at the time, embedded in a more hierarchical culture than his Western peers, he says he continued out of a sense of moral obligation. He resolved to publish future work in English instead.
What really mattered, Akagi thought, was not the specific way methylmercury came into being, but how much was flowing through an ecosystem. And so he set out – and succeeded – at developing a chemical method to measure mercury better than anyone else.
After a stint in Canada honing his technique in the polluted Ottawa river, and more time at Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, Akagi finally came to Minamata in 1981 to join the newly established National Institute for Minamata Disease, or NIMD. Ten careful, cautious years later he published his mercury measurement bible: a cookbook to count up the amount of methylmercury in a sample of water, soil, blood, hair, fish, whatever. At long last, he could use the method to map out the full rhythms of mercury in history’s most famously exposed place, Minamata Bay.
At least that was the plan. Then the world’s mercury researchers came knocking, and a much larger picture of mercury around our planet started coming into focus. First it was the Brazilians, concerned about mercury in the Amazon. “There is no reliable data at the time,” Akagi says. “Not only in the Amazon but everywhere.”
He started travelling to help assess sites of mercury pollution – Brazil and then Indonesia, the Philippines, Tanzania. At the same time, dozens of researchers from all over the world started making pilgrimages to Minamata to learn the technique. They were young and sometimes poor, and they almost always slept at Akagi’s house. His wife and children liked it, he says.In these two lines, the writer shows Akagi’s generosity and morality, which hits on the theme of social justice as it relates to the issue of methylmercury pollution.
Armed with Akagi’s method, researchers have shown that the mercury problem is multifaceted. Besides Minamata, there have been other severe and concentrated mercury poisonings. The indigenous Grassy Narrows people in Ontario, Canada, developed their own cases of Minamata disease thanks to discharges from a paper and pulp mill that created mercury waste, and rural Iraqis died by the hundreds in 1971 after eating imported grain intended for planting that had been dressedAnother lovely active (intransitive) verb. I cannot praise these enough. with methylmercury fungicide.
Much larger populations are exposed to lower but still harmful concentrations. Inorganic mercury also comes into the world from sources like volcanoes, and in the last few centuries human industry has accelerated its release – it’s also emitted by burning coal. The atmosphere is now laden with five times more mercury than in pre-industrial times. This pollution doesn’t respect borders. Once in the air it can settle all over the globe, even in supposedly pristine locations like the Arctic, and can be converted to methylmercury in environments ranging from the guts of insects to thawing permafrost to the water column of the open ocean.
For most of the developed world, the health effects are subtle, with adverse effects being largely avoidable. Food webs and biochemistry alike focus mercury into the muscle tissue of large, sleek ocean animals that humans like to eat – so don’t consume lots of athletic predators like swordfish and tuna, especially when you’re pregnant. But this advice is harder to follow, and the risk of poisoning more immediate, for communities like Minamata with deep cultural ties to the water and no other accessible, affordable protein.
Overall, the world’s coastal indigenous groups fill their plates with 15 times more seafood than the average for their country, a 2016 study found. Faroe Islanders traditionally eat pilot whales, which build up high levels of methylmercury, for example. Many of Canada’s indigenous First Nations depend on fish and seals.There are a couple of things going on in this transitional paragraph: It broadens the story to humanity at large—mercury knows no boundaries—but also specifically to marginalized groups that struggle for justice.
Many of the sites Akagi has visited in South America, Africa and Asia are small gold mines, as cavalier with mercury today as Akagi’s hometown was in the 1940s. Right now, this is the world’s largest source of mercury pollution. If you mix mercury with gold-rich sediment, the two metals form an amalgam, and you can then cook off the mercury as vapour. It’s all very convenient for miners ignorant of the risks or resigned to living with hazards. Some 10 to 15 million people are involved in this enterprise, about a third of them women and children, spread over 70 countries. But that mercury then gets into soil and rivers, is converted to methylmercury, and builds up in fish and fish eaters.
“You see people passing around old Coke bottles of mercury, pouring them out haphazardly,” says Keane from the National Resources Defense Council, who has also visited many of these small communities. “Often kids are hanging around, and women with babies balanced on their hips.” Afterward, mercury in the miners’ breath has been measured to exceed the occupational standards for air, she says, adding wryly that the miners themselves might qualify as toxic mercury sources.I would put this detail up there with the teen injecting himself with mercury and nursing mothers unknowingly harming their babies—disturbing, and I want to tell people about these awful things as a kind of warning.
It’s not a pretty picture. But Akagi’s chemical analyses have helped reveal a world where the dangers of mercury still persist, even after decades of better regulations. In person, he seems to prefer talking through the pure chemistry. His scientific progeny, many now big names in the research world, are the ones smiling down from the walls of his office. He comes to the lab to keep chiselling away at – what else – the same old problem of helping people measure mercury, stopping for lunch most days at the roadside noodle restaurant next door.
Another of those CVs up on the wall belongs to Milena Horvat, a chemist who came to visit him several times from Slovenia. She now heads up the Department of Environmental Sciences at the Jožef Stefan Institute in Ljubljana. The institute is about an hour’s drive from a town called Idrija – home to a 500-year-old mercury mine, the second biggest in the world, recently active and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With Horvat and her colleagues, Akagi is now working on a method for measuring mercury that uses cheaper chemical ingredients, for developing countries. He thinks it will be his last major project. He doesn’t know how many years he’ll need.
Almost 12,000 kilometres from Minamata, Rimiko Yoshinaga, seated next to an interpreter at a desk at the front of the room, picks up a microphone and begins. She is tired from jetlag, and it is cold here compared to Kyushu. The seafood available pales in comparison to what she is used to from Minamata Bay, which was finally declared safe in 1997. “This is my first time in the United States,” she says. “I have been here four days, and I am starting to yearn for the fish in Minamata.”Here, I’m so surprised they eat fish, but of course they do—it’s Japan. In this one quote, the writer emphasizes that chronic illness was bad enough, but the resource poisoned by the company was a cultural hit as well.
She is speaking to a room of researchers in Providence, Rhode Island, gathered for the 13th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant.Science conferences offer writers the possibility of stories no one else has told, but it’s notoriously difficult to envision a narrative within often dry presentations. For new writers, understanding that conferences are sometimes a perfect place to find sources is a great leap forward. The story could easily have just been a kind of research-and-policy roundup type of story, with a few quotes from Rimiko and others for color. Instead, Sokol went much deeper. Organised by a volunteer committee, the meeting is a get-together that happens every two years. This summer, roughly a thousand researchers are in attendance from some 50 countries, many of them buzzing about the Minamata Convention coming into force. Akagi hosted the sixth such meeting in Minamata in 2001, and he is here too, to present his work with the Slovenians.
Rimiko has come to Providence as a kataribe, a storyteller. People with Minamata disease have been fulfilling this role in official and unofficial capacities at international conferences for 45 years. In her presentation, she shows a picture of her father, breaking down in tears while quoting her mother Mitsuko. She weaves her family story back and forth into the wider history. It’s hard but it comes with catharsis, she says later. “Every time I give a talk, I feel like I am releasing whatever things I hide in myself,” she says. “That makes me little by little more comfortable.”
For years Rimiko kept her status a secret. Unlike many other victims, whatever neurological harm she suffered as a child isn’t obvious from the outside – excepting the occasional muscle cramps she worries about – even though she ate the same fish as everyone else. Before she married her first husband, she didn’t mention the disease until his parents, snooping on their son’s prospective bride, unearthed the connection. Her fiancé asked her point-blank and she had to admit to being a sufferer. But she stayed silent in public until 1994, during a period of official apology and reconciliation called moyainaoshi, a local term that alludes to fisherman connecting their boats to work together.
When she did speak out, a delegation of city officials showed up at her door. Long-time Minamata activist Toshio Yoshinaga, the man who is now her husband, accompanied them. They asked her to give a speech in front of several hundred people. At first, she balked. “It was that time when I started to think about my father,” she says. “I felt I had to do it.”
Rimiko, who makes and sells small ornaments of recycled glass from a small shed behind her home, is the current vice-president of the storytellers’ group. She is a charismatic, emotional speaker, and as one of the youngest, healthiest people in the Minamata disease community, she can still travel widely. Over the years, she has also spoken in the Philippines and in Johannesburg. But given the timing, the conference this summer in Providence is particularly special. “I am relieved to hear that the Minamata Convention on Mercury will come into force,” she tells her audience. “I truly hope that no more people suffer health damage caused by mercury.”
The experts in Providence express cautious hope as well. “All of the pieces are in place for the international community to be able to move forward if they want to,” says Boston University’s Henrik Selin, a professor of international relations who visited Minamata and nearby Kumamoto City in 2013, when the convention was first opened for signatures.
The convention comes with a long checklist of deadlines. Nations must immediately give up building new mercury mines and, within three years, they need to submit a plan of action to come to grips with small-time gold miners. By 2018, they need to have phased out using mercury in the production of acetaldehyde – the process that poisoned Minamata is still in use. By 2020, they need to have begun phasing out products that contain mercury.
But beyond that, the actual decision-making power on mercury control comes from those Conferences of the Parties, starting in Geneva. It isn’t yet clear which countries will pony up the cash to pay for campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of mercury, for example, Selin says. Nor is it clear whether countries like China, and especially India – who were dragging their feet in 2013 with the argument that stricter mercury standards would be prohibitively expensive – can be convinced to beat the deadlines.
Rimiko won’t be in Geneva, so Providence is her last chance for a while to get her specific message out. At the end of her story, she launches into a plea to the assembled scientists. “We, the ones who live by the sea, are the first ones to realise the strange phenomena,” she says. “Always listen to the voices of nameless persons.
“What you are protecting are the irreplaceable lives of human beings. This is the wish of Minamata, Japan, where many lives were sacrificed, and [where] some 10,000 people with health damages are still living.”
Three times a week, a support group of about a dozen people living with the lingering effects of Minamata’s poisoning gathers.A great example of a transition from one section to the next, moving the reader from thinking about the international policy discussions underway in Geneva and in Rhode Island to thinking, once again, about the human lives in the balance—specifically in Minamata. It’s tempting to forget transitions when beginning a new section, but writing is not cinema, where a director can make a leap visually and keep the audience. It’s Monday morning and they trickle into a room at a community centre and sit on chairs or on the floor around a low table. Patients and activists chat, glancing at nonstop coverage of the latest Kim Jong-un provocation on the news. Two attendees bring their cats in carriers, and the organisers let the cats out in an adjacent room. People take shifts to go play with them.A moment where the writer invites the reader to reflect: Remember that outrageous thing done to that other cat?! It reminds the reader why they are invested in the piece.
Yoichi Tani, a long-time Minamata activist who first recruited Rimiko’s now-husband Toshio Yoshinaga to the cause in 1972, hosts this informal meeting. It draws a diverse crowd. There are a few high-profile storytellers, several patients who were poisoned in the womb, a couple who recently came out and were covered in the newspapers, and two sisters who spend most of their time with the cats and ask to not have their picture taken.
Hunched over by the wall, her arm bent and held close to her chest, is Shinobu Sakamoto, who was affected in the womb and is maybe the most ‘famous’ living Minamata victim. In 1972, she travelled to an international environmental conference in Stockholm with her mother to talk to scientists about Minamata. Her haircut today is the same as in the pictures, and she’s still flanked by her mother, a tiny, determined-looking woman. Shinobu has never quite abdicated that role: Tani’s group is paying to bring her to Geneva. Hovering in the background is a journalist who quit his newspaper gig last year to write a book about her, and who now serves as an expert in understanding her slurred speech.
Another patient, Hideo Ikoma, shares his own version of the story many victims have spent their lives telling. He lived by the sea and caught fish, but nothing happened until he was on summer vacation aged 15. He was hanging out with friends up in the mountains as they gathered vines to make crafts. They stopped for a cold treat of shaved ice, and after a few scoops the spoon jumped out of his hand. His friends, thinking he was overheated, suggested he go home and take a nap.
Hideo’s own speech is slurred, and as he talks through an interpreter he occasionally pauses, bends his face down, and brings a mug of green tea to his mouth in jerky steps. “I don’t know how long I slept, but when I woke up, from my head to the toe I felt the hairy worms all around my body,” he says. “I wanted to tell my father but I realised I can’t. I couldn’t talk properly at that time, having numbness.”
Hideo, like Rimiko, has travelled internationally to present Minamata to a wider audience. He’s 74, though, and his health is worsening. About five years ago, he still had the dexterity in his hands to make the wooden dolls and crafts that many Minamata disease victims sell to raise money. Now he doesn’t. He says he would go to Geneva himself, but his back hurts too much on long flights.
Although methylmercury lingers in the body, its half-life is short compared to human memory: just 50 days.Lovely writing, so much more evocative than straight reporting. Mercury levels in Minamata’s food long ago returned to normal, so Hideo’s current symptoms are the tangled product of his severe exposure as a child and everything since.
Other patients report similar recent experiences. In the span of a few years, their health and motor skills can deteriorate quickly. “We see delayed effects,” says Chan, the toxicologist from the University of Ottawa. “We know that it is possible, but exactly how we don’t know yet.”
Hideo’s worsening health has left him thinking about the legacy of Minamata’s storytellers. “The adults who got affected are now already passed away,” he says. People who were affected as children and actually remember the onset of their symptoms are now in their 70s. Those in his generation, he says, “are kind of the last people to talk about these things.”
To some of these patients and their advocates, long at odds with the Japanese government, the Minamata Convention is only a partial resolution. “I will say what no one will say,” says Masanori Hanada of nearby Kumamoto Gakuen University, speaking through an interpreter. Hanada, head of a group called the Open Research Center for Minamata Studies, also leads efforts to study and advocate for victims of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows, Canada. “The members of this research centre, we would not say Minamata Convention. We say ‘mercury convention’,” he says. “[The negotiators] understood the lesson of Minamata disease, but not the real fact or the real situation of Minamata.”
One gripe goes back to the beginning and is still being contested in lawsuits today: Who exactly qualifies as a sufferer? Who deserves compensation? There have only been about 2,000 certified patients, most of them already dead. It’s a strict certification process – you are examined for neurological symptoms by a medical panel and need to prove you lived in Minamata around the right time. In recent years, very few names have been added.
Even Rimiko, one of the most visible Minamata ambassadors, says that she and her siblings have not applied for fear of rejection. Instead, Rimiko is part of a complex, tiered system that pays at least some compensation or healthcare expenses to tens of thousands more. To Tani, the activist, tens of thousands is still too small: he argues a comprehensive approach should be taken that considers historic methylmercury exposure in fish eaters around the full Shiranui Sea.
Another point of conflict is all that untreated mercury under the park, athletics fields and waterfront memorial – which was the site of a ceremony during the Minamata Convention signing. “We think here the Japanese way is just [to] bury mercury underneath the land. It’s not safe at all,” Hanada says. In 2016, the Kumamoto region containing Minamata experienced a 7.3 magnitude earthquake.In this paragraph, and in this telling information, the writer introduces more tension, just when the reader expects some resolution. Rimiko worries that a subsequent disaster could free the buried mercury back into the bay.
That isn’t as serious a concern as it might seem, says Sakamoto at NIMD, where he is head of the Department of Environmental Science and Epidemiology. According to Sakamoto, over the years the mercury has transformed to mercury sulfide, a stable and safer form. But to Hanada and others, ‘mercury sulfide’ is an old chestnut. “Nobody has checked,” says Sakamoto’s former boss Akagi, who speaks ruefully of an unused chemical process he once developed to treat the sludge before it was buried.
For Hideo Ikoma, wrapping up his story at the community centre, Minamata’s still-simmering conflicts are worth fighting but are stressful on a personal level. He says he finds solace somewhere both unexpected and blindingly obvious: a small boat with a safety railing that he takes out on the Shiranui Sea.
It’s harder to get out there now that he has to visit the hospital every day. And until two or three years ago, he loved to fish, but since then it’s become almost impossible to bait a hook. Thinking about it, he lights up. Earlier this week he let a bare line hang in the water, he says, and caught a few octopuses. There’s also a social component. “Whenever I go out into the sea, I see an acquaintance or my old friends doing something” – almost all of them Minamata disease ‘patients’, or ‘sufferers’, or otherwise connected.Oh, the irony. What made them sick infiltrated the thing they love, the food that defines them culturally—it makes them outsiders in a culture that prizes conformity. The unfairness of it touches the reader’s heart.
He’ll go over and chat, or sometimes just manoeuvre his boat with one hand on the engine, his head clear. “While I am at the sea I don’t need to think about anything,” he says. “I can be so quiet and peaceful.”
- Chisso Corporation did not respond to Mosaic’s requests for comment in relation to this article.
- With thanks to Hiroko Saisho for interpreting.
A Conversation with Joshua Sokol
Jude Isabella: The most obvious first question is: How did the idea for this story come to you?
Joshua Sokol: I had this as a vague idea in the fall of 2015, when I was interning at New Scientist. I reported two short pieces about new findings in methylmercury research and was fascinated. The topic connected esoteric science with very physical human stories. In this case, every single methylmercury researcher I spoke to seemed to have this one specific place and event in mind—Minamata—as a core driver of their work, so I knew I wanted to explore how that place and the environmental disaster that unfolded there so long ago continued to inform the global mercury pollution story today.
JI: I’m always interested in how a writer came to their lede. How obvious was it to begin with that image of the tree—now and 50 years ago—as the right way to lead readers into the story?
JS: I thought about starting at that scene almost immediately after it happened. When Rimiko described her grandfather climbing the tree to watch for fish, I could see it, and I could just imagine how it might feel to live in this once-idyllic, bountiful environment. If I started there, the tree could bridge us to the past, and I could quickly tell this sort of “despoiled Eden” version of the entire story. I could also set up a parallel between the beginning and the end of the piece, underscoring how important the sea and the animals in it are to the physical, mental, spiritual health of this place.
JI: Writers new to long features that require fieldwork often wonder how you go about arranging the trip, talking to the right people, and figuring out the best places to visit. Have you done a lot of field reporting and writing? How did you make this project work? What made me ask this question is that you write in the piece, “Summer is the wrong time to go,” which I thought was charmingly honest. It reminds the reader the writer is fallible and doing his damnedest to get the story.
JS: Thank you for asking this! I have made a concerted effort to be considered for these resource-intensive natural history stories ever since I read Beak of the Finch, Song of the Dodo, and Sixth Extinction in the summer of 2014, right before I went to the MIT science writing grad program. For my master’s thesis I wrote a story on coral reef climate change resilience in Palau, reporting from the field through grant funding. I then published a big chunk of that thesis as a feature in NOVA Next. In 2016, I began freelancing and saved enough during my first six months—working on shorter news pieces—to travel to southwest Florida to pursue a narrative feature on endangered Florida panthers. That piece eventually got published online for The Atlantic.
My hope was that those two field-driven narrative features would prove that I could do this kind of writing. And in the last year or so, starting with this mercury piece, a few publications have granted me additional chances to do field reporting.
This project, commissioned by Mosaic after I pitched them, was a challenge. There was only a short interval between getting the story accepted and the news peg we wanted to hit: the Minamata Convention’s Conference of the Parties in Geneva. So I had to visit Japan from the end of July into the beginning of August. Kyushu—the most southern of Japan’s four main islands—was oppressively, stiflingly hot when I got there, limiting my interactions and interviews to mostly indoor situations. I thought admitting to the reader that I goofed was a way to get the reader in my head and give them some sort of bodily, sensory cues about Minamata.
JI: How did working on your first two features from the field help you work on this third field piece?
JS: When I arrived, I felt like the prior experiences reporting in Palau and Florida had prepared me well. In the first two cases, I collected a bunch of raw material and then felt overwhelmed at the task of culling and shaping once I returned home. This time, I did more of that organizational work in real time, as things happened. I had a better sense of the scene-setting and moments that the story could hang on much more quickly.
JI: How did you keep track of your research? It’s so easy to forget bits of information that add a new wrinkle to the story. There was a lot of reporting here, but readers don’t often notice, because it’s such a good read.
JS: My research began in Providence, Rhode Island, for a science and policy conference on mercury, which is where I first met Rimiko. I drove there from my home in Boston in the middle of July 2017. At that time, I had already been emailing sources in Japan in advance of my reporting trip, but I was finding that the language barrier made communicating difficult. I knew Japanese researchers would have a major presence at the conference, though, and hoped to do better in person. During the three days I commuted to Providence, I made the contacts I needed to find my way in Minamata at the end of the month, most importantly Hiroko Saisho, who often works as an interpreter for the Minamata disease community.
As for the nuts and bolts, I used Scrivener to keep track of research reports, scientific papers, newspaper articles, documents from the NGOs involved, or whatever. That let me hold on to details that seemed important even when I didn’t know how exactly I would use them.
JI: Again, for new writers, what was your timeline—from the initial idea, to arranging travel, to the travel itself, research, and writing a first draft? Would you do anything differently?
JS: After hitting on the basic idea for the story in fall 2015, it took me a while to follow up. A field-based mercury story would be too expensive to fund on my own, and I didn’t think I could get it accepted. For new writers, it’s hard to even find editor contact information that would let you start to compete for these resource-intensive ideas. And if you do manage to find the right name, the response isn’t often positive. I had also gone through multiple rejections after doing my field reporting in Palau and in Florida, and in those cases, I wasn’t asking for travel funds; I just wanted to deliver a field narrative at a discount. So I wasn’t optimistic about getting a publication to invest this time.
In August 2016, I decided to apply for a National Geographic Fulbright to do some mercury-related stories. That October, at the National Association of Science Writers’ annual conference in San Antonio, Texas, I introduced myself to Chrissie Giles, the editor of Mosaic. She was kind enough to chat with me about what makes a good Mosaic story and about methylmercury as a potential piece for them. The following March, I learned that although I was shortlisted for the Fulbright, I didn’t make the final cut. That discouraged me a bit.
A few months later, in June 2017, though, with the international conference on mercury pollution scheduled for fall in Geneva, I figured I would take my best shot at the mercury story I wanted to do most—Minamata, then and now—and I pitched it to Mosaic. They accepted.
Now I realized I had to move fast. I booked the cheapest flights I could get within our timeframe, and started reaching out to researchers in Minamata, without too much initial success. At the conference in Providence, though, I was able to make my case to my newly acquired sources. They embraced my desire to tell their story. I spent the next two weeks organizing my trip to Japan.
After I returned, I wrote my first draft in a week and a half, filing it August 14 with Chrissie. We had to have it edited, fact-checked, and published in time to coincide with the Geneva meeting on September 24.
If I could do it over, I would have pitched to Mosaic much earlier. Finding all my characters for a 5,800-word piece in such a short time was stressful.
JI: From my own experience living in and reporting from Japan, culturally the Japanese are quite stoic, especially with outsiders. How did you ask the kinds of questions that revealed some very painful memories—for example, that Rimiko’s father died shivering and crying in bed?
JS: I can’t credit my intrepid reporting style much for this. It may be that Minamata disease patients and their community have a special strength borne out of having to deal with so much discrimination. Also, many of my sources long ago shouldered this “storyteller” role, which commits them to bearing witness. And given that Minamata has received a lot of attention from journalists since the famous Life magazine photos in the 1970s, I think that people in this community may just have had a lot of practice sharing even the most painful parts of their stories.
JI: Having a side gig writing for kids, I know how hard it is to write chemistry stories that are understandable to most people. Chemistry is tough to write about without jargon. You did a great job. Do you have a chemistry background or did you love it in school? What was most challenging about explaining the chemistry?
JS: I would say I have just a basic grounding in chemistry, but a high tolerance for general wonkiness. My college education was almost exclusively English lit classes and miscellaneous science: two courses each of biology, geology, and chemistry, plus all the physics and astrophysics I needed for my astronomy major. Also now, as a freelancer, I often write for outlets like Quanta where I’m supposed to both go into the weeds and take the reader with me.
That said, only occasionally do I have to explain chemistry, so yeah, it was really hard. For me, the most challenging part was the toxicology stuff, the biochemical details of how exactly this substance is harmful.
Thankfully, various scientists had written review papers for the mercury conference I attended in Providence, and those provided little primers with summaries and references. I relied on these when I needed to address the more technical, scientific parts of this story.
JI: It’s easy, in environmental writing, to demonize industrial chemicals, but you avoided scaring readers about mercury itself, and concentrated on the corporate irresponsibility that led to mercury pollution. How cognizant were you of the direction you were taking when writing about mercury pollution?
JS: Initially, I was unsure of how to address it. As I wrote in the piece, it seems to me that mercury research bifurcates: there are rare, acute poisoning cases on one side, and then a lot of modern work on low-level toxicity on the other. I knew that most of the people who read this article would be personally curious about low-level toxicity, situations where mercury probably won’t kill you, but still might harm you or your newborn.
In my reporting, though, I wanted to focus on the super-concentrated mercury poisoning that happened in Minamata, since it inspired the entire field’s researchers. I’ll have to hope that curious readers went on to read more about mercury pollution at lower but still dangerous levels. Or maybe, I’ll have to do some reporting and writing on that myself.
JI: I love details like this: “Long beforehand, in the summer of 1959, factory hospital doctor Hajime Hosokawa had been conducting his own experiment by giving Chisso wastewater to cats. When one of these—the now infamous cat 400—developed signs of Minamata disease, he reported it to management.” It shows a real depth of research and a desire to get behind the story. How did you find details like this? Were they difficult to find, especially given the language barrier? Were they difficult to fact-check?
JS: From my Minamata reporting, we relied on physical printouts I was given, published papers, and my recordings. Plus Hiroko Saisho was so kind and generous that when I emailed her during fact-checking about a few points we couldn’t totally resolve, she actually made phone calls to provide definitive answers.
This particular detail, and several others in the piece, came from historian Timothy S. George’s English-language book Minamata: Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan. I got myself a copy, and the Mosaic fact-checker had a copy, I believe. The fact that something so thoroughly argued and researched (and in English!) already existed allowed me to spend less time re-reporting the macroscopic history, and more time working on the modern science and some of the individual perspectives.
Lastly, and as a note, it is such an unbelievable luxury to have time to read books when I do these longer pieces. When I write science news stories on deadline, I need to depend on my own quick reading of science papers, on Google, and on my interviews. That’s fine. But when I have time to get a book or two, I find that I can harvest better details and anecdotes, and that I gain a deeper understanding of the topic. That alone makes me want to keep pitching longform stories like this.
Joshua Sokol is a freelance writer based in Boston. Originally trained in observational astronomy, he now covers not just space but stories throughout natural history for Quanta, Science, and other magazines. His piece about mercury poisoning in Minamata, together with three other stories from the past year, won the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing’s 2018 Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award for young science journalists. Follow him on Twitter @josh_sokol.
Jude Isabella has been a science journalist for over 25 years, concentrating on the environment, ecology, and archaeology, with occasional forays into health. She spent a dozen years as managing editor of YES Mag, Canada’s science magazine for kids. In 2015, she launched Hakai, an online publication focused on coastal science and societies. She continues to write for young readers. Her sixth book for kids, about the wolves of Yellowstone National Park for Kids Can Press, is slated for publication in 2019. Follow her on Twitter @judeisabella.