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Ontario, Canada

The effects are still being felt from the mercury pollution that came from a pulp and paper mill, poisoning hundreds of kilometres of waterways in northwestern Ontario.  The Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation, also known as Grassy Narrows, frequently features in Canadian news for its fight against the mercury poisoning. However, the small community of Wabaseemoong, also called Whitedog, located just downstream is lesser known. Sitting approximately 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora, this community is still dealing with the lasting effects of methyl mercury poisoning. It has been a source of blame for the multiple birth defects that have appeared in the children of their community.

In 1985, two paper companies (Great Lakes Forest Products and Reed Ltd.) awarded a $16.67-million out-of-court settlement to both communities. The Mercury Disability Board was later formed to administer claims of mercury contamination in individuals. Those who are denied compensation may reapply every two years. The disability board’s annual report reveals that a total of 191 adults and children were receiving benefits during 2014-15. CBCNews says that the Wabaseemoong First Nation community members want answers as to why so few have been compensated, and why the amount for those who have has failed to change since the 1980s. People in the area only started to receive compensation from the federal government following 15 year-long negotiations.

In the 1960s, mercury was involved in the bleaching process at a Dryden, Ont., pulp and paper mill and the waste was dumped into the Wabigoon River. Although the Ontario government put an end to this a decade later, once they discovered what the company was doing, almost 10 tonnes of mercury had already made its way into the river, spreading for hundreds of kilometers in northwestern Ontario and as far as Lake Winnipeg, nearly 300 kilometres west.

A primary part of the community’s diet has been fish poisoned by a mercury spill in the 1960s; pregnant mothers ate it and the next generation has grown up on it also. Many believe that as a result, some have been born without fully formed hands and feet, numbness in the limbs, blurred vision, slurred speech or tremors. A similar case of industrial wastewater dumping happened in Minamata, Japan, during the 1930s. A number of people were killed or left suffering from severe mercury poisoning after eating the local fish and shellfish. The deformities and birth defects of the people from that area was subsequently named Minamata disease.

As far back as the 1970s, Japanese scientists found that the people of northwestern Ontario were suffering from the same symptoms. Yet, the Canadian government has never confirmed a single case of Minamata disease in Grassy Narrows or Wabaseemoong. Donna Mergler, a professor in the department of biological sciences of the University of Quebec, Montreal, believes a thorough epidemiologic study with community participation is needed. She thinks a population-based study would reveal what is taking place in Wabaseemoong better than the examination of individual cases.