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Researcher says symptoms of mercury contamination rising in some Ontario natives

Researcher says symptoms of mercury contamination rising in some Ont. natives

WINNIPEG (CP) - A renowned Japanese neurologist who sounded the alarm decades ago about mercury poisoning in residents of two northern Ontario aboriginal bands says some people there are experiencing an increase in symptoms even though the chemical's level is dropping in their bodies.

Dr. Masazumi Harada visited Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemong reserves over the last week. On Thursday, he said while mercury levels in band members - measured through hair samples - are dropping, some residents' symptoms from long-term exposure, such are impaired motor skills and fatigue, are increasing.

Harada's findings prompted the reserves' leaders to call on the federal and Ontario governments to launch a public inquiry.

"It should not be the Canadian way to permit this . . . . to linger any longer," Grassy Narrows chief Simon Fobister told reporters.

"If this was a Walkerton . . . . governments would have acted much more swiftly and decisively," Fobister said.

The Ontario government held a public inquiry after seven people died and thousands got sick after E. coli got into the water in Walkerton in 2000.

The mercury problems in northwestern Ontario date back decades.

In 1970, a pulp mill in Dryden was identified as the source of mercury contamination of fish in the region's river system, and was ordered to stop dumping the chemical.

Harada found signs of mercury poisoning among reserve residents in 1975. Symptoms included twitches, dizziness, eye problems and severe birth defects.

Harada is renowned for his work with residents of Minamata Bay in Japan, where heavy industries dumped mercury into the water and contaminated the fish supply, causing more than 100 people to die from neurological disorders.

In 1985, the bands received more than $16.6 million in compensation from the company and provincial and federal governments. The bands were also given $1 million each to help cover future medical expenses.

The increase in symptoms could be due to aging and diseases such as diabetes, Harada said.

As well, fish with very low levels of mercury that are deemed safe for most people may not be safe for those who have had long-term exposure to mercury, he added.

Because the effects of the mercury are not going away, aboriginal leaders argue more compensation is needed, along with a public inquiry.

They accused the federal government of assuming the problem has been dealt with.

"This issue is real," said Treaty 3 Grand Chief Arnold Gardner, the top native leader in the region.

"We urge the federal government to address this issue and develop real, inclusive strategies which will ensure the health and safety of (residents)."

The chiefs said a public inquiry should include new scientific research to examine the extent of the effects of mercury contamination.

"The international medical and scientific community can. . .come to conclusions on the lives that have been so tragically impacted," said Fobister.
© The Canadian Press 2004