Neurological and birth defects haunt Wabaseemoong First Nation, decades after mercury dumping
People in community born without toes, an extra thumb, but few are compensated
By Martha Troian, CBC News, September 20, 2016
Forty-five years ago, mercury pollution from a pulp and paper mill poisoned hundreds of kilometres of waterways in northwestern Ontario.
Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation, also known as Grassy Narrows, often makes headlines for its fight against the mercury poisoning. But few have heard of a tiny community called Wabaseemoong, also called Whitedog, just downstream.
Located approximately 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora, the community still grapples with the lingering effects of the methylmercury poisoning — a condition known as Minamata disease — which many blame for birth defects that appear in children in their community.
Recently, two experts from Japan, Dr. Masanori Hanada and Dr. Naoki Morishita, visited Wabaseemoong and Grassy Narrows as part of their research in a disease that’s endured for decades.
“I cannot say exactly why, maybe there is mercury in their diet, or there is an after-effect of 20 or 30 years, but it is not normal to find this sign in the younger generation,” Hanada said to CBC News.
Now community members from the Wabaseemoong First Nation want to know why so few have been compensated and why the amount given hasn’t changed since the 1980s.
‘I have no toes’
Kimberly McDonald, 31, of Wabaseemoong First Nation, describes the burning discomfort in her feet as phantom pain. She was born without toes — just small stubs without nails.
“I get lots of pain in my foot, I have no toes, so it’s hard to walk,” she says.
In order to walk, McDonald has learned to balance herself on the ball of her right foot.
“I have a really bad callus on my foot, where I step all the time,” she says, adding how she has a large, painful blister on her foot, too.
“When I step too hard [or] put too much weight on it, then I get a sharp, shooting pain that goes up my leg.”
For the pain she must endure for the rest of her life, McDonald receives $250 a month from the Mercury Disability Board, a government-controlled body that determines who is suffering from mercury poisoning and the compensation they’ll receive on a monthly basis.
“I grew up eating fish. My mom grew up eating fish while she was pregnant with me,” says McDonald.
Beginning in the 1960s, mercury used in the bleaching process at a Dryden, Ont., pulp and paper mill was simply being flushed into the Wabigoon River system.
A decade later, the Ontario government discovered what the company was doing and ordered it to stop — but by then nearly 10 tonnes of mercury had been released into the river and had spread as far as Lake Winnipeg, nearly 300 kilometres west.
During the 1930s, Minamata, Japan, experienced a similar release of industrial wastewater that left people dead or suffering from severe mercury poisoning after eating the local fish and shellfish. Scientists also found deformities and birth defects in people from that area, which they named Minamata disease.
In the 1970s, Japanese scientists that visited northwestern Ontario found people suffering from the same symptoms — numbness in the limbs, blurred vision, slurred speech or tremors. Over 40 years later, Hanada told CBC News that “90 to 95 per cent of the population have the same problem. For them it is normal, but for us who do the research it is not normal.”
Yet despite this seemingly damning research that stretches back decades, the Canadian government has never confirmed a single case of Minamata disease in Grassy Narrows or Wabaseemoong.
Looking for bigger picture
Donna Mergler, professor emerita in the department of biological sciences of the University of Quebec in Montreal, believes a thorough epidemiologic study with community participation is needed.
According to Mergler, a population-based study would help reveal what is taking place in Wabaseemoong better than examining individual cases.
“Each community that is exposed to toxic substances has its own history and its own environment,” says Mergler.
“You have some people who, for genetic reasons, are more sensitive or vulnerable to, or more sensitive to poisoning than others. There could be different reasons for it.”
Mergler is currently in Grassy Narrows helping the community with a health survey of its members.
Hand and feet defects
Sydney Muckle, 24, from Wabaseemoong has a limb abnormality. At birth, Muckle had two thumbs on his left hand. At the age of one, the extra thumb was removed, but Muckle says he suffers severe tremors in the morning.
Like many in the area, he was raised eating fish from local waterways.
Muckle receives a small monthly payment from the Mercury Disability Board, something his family sought since he was just a child.
Colleen Quewezance has taken care of a six-year-old girl from the community since she was a baby.
The little girl was born with her toes partially fused together on her left foot. The girl’s toenails also grow inward and toward the skin.
Quewezance says the little girl’s mother ate a lot of fish while carrying the baby. She intends to apply to the Mercury Disability Board for the young girl.
Another Wabaseemoong resident, Bill Henry, 66, lives with his left hand permanently contorted, his fingertips in a curled position.
Henry says that when he cuts himself, he doesn’t even know it, because his hand is completely numb.
Henry’s father, Bill Duck, 93, was once a commercial fisherman and now receives compensation from the board.
The team of Japanese doctors have told Henry he has mercury poisoning, but the mercury board told him there is no mercury in his system.
Measuring the pain and the payout
People in the area began receiving compensation from the federal government after negotiations that lasted for 15 years.
In 1985, two paper companies, Great Lakes Forest Products and Reed Limited, awarded a $16.67-million out-of-court settlement to the Wabaseemoong and Grassy Narrows First Nations.
Insurance giant Great-West Life became the independent administrator of the fund, and a year later the Mercury Disability Board was created to administer claims of mercury contamination in individuals.
The board consists of a chair, one representative from each community, two physicians and two governmental representatives. Meetings are held quarterly where claims are evaluated.
Compensation is awarded based on a point system, with six points being the minimum to qualify. Compensation begins at just $250 per month, to a maximum of 16 points for $800 per month.
According to the disability board’s annual report during 2014-15, a total of 191 adults and children were receiving benefits.
Those denied compensation are eligible to reapply every two years.
Living with the defects
Wabaseemoong Chief John Paishk isn’t entirely sure what’s causing the birth abnormalities, but he’s not convinced another study is the answer.
Paishk says the community only trusts the Japanese researchers, who continue to visit the communities today.
“They told us, you’re not going to see the effects until two generations [later],” says Paishk, referring to the limb abnormalities.
McDonald would like higher rates of compensation, given the pain and suffering she’s living with — and not just the physical pain.
“Growing up, it didn’t seem to faze me, but now that I’m older I notice it more,” she says. “It really does make me depressed a lot.”
McDonald says she feels embarrassed about her feet, something Quewezance is hoping the six-year-old child in her care will not face.
Recently, Gary Wheeler, a spokesman for the Department of Environment and Climate Change stated the government of Ontario needs to move quickly to find solutions to the mercury contamination.