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Sci Total Environ. 2009 Dec 20;408(2):272-6. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2009.10.011. Epub 2009 Oct 29.

What has methylmercury in umbilical cords told us? - Minamata disease.

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Department of Epidemiology, Okayama University Graduate School of Medicine, Dentistry and Pharmaceutical Sciences, 2-5-1 Shikata-cho, Kita-ku, Okayama 700-8558, Japan.


Severe methylmercury poisoning occurred in Minamata and neighboring communities in the 1950s and 1960s. The exposed patients manifested neurological signs, and some patients exposed in utero were born with so-called congenital Minamata disease. In a previous report, Nishigaki and Harada evaluated the methylmercury concentrations in the umbilical cords of inhabitants and demonstrated that methylmercury actually passed through the placenta (Nishigaki and Harada, 1975). However, the report involved a limited number of cases (only 35) and did not quantitatively evaluate the regional differences in the transition of methylmercury exposure. Therefore, in the present study, we evaluated the temporal and spatial distributions of methylmercury concentrations in umbilical cords, with an increased number of participants and additional descriptive analyses. Then, we examined whether the methylmercury concentrations corresponded with the history of the Minamata disease incident. A total of 278 umbilical cord specimens collected after birth were obtained from babies born between 1925 and 1980 in four study areas exposed to methylmercury. Then, we conducted descriptive analyses, and drew scatterplots of the methylmercury concentrations of all the participants and separated by the areas. In the Minamata area, where the first patient was identified in 1956, the methylmercury concentration reached a peak around 1955. Subsequently, about 5 years later, the concentrations peaked in other exposed areas with the expected exposure distribution corresponding with acetaldehyde production (the origin of methylmercury). This historical incident several decades ago in Minamata and neighboring communities clearly shows that regional pollution affected the environment in utero. Furthermore, the temporal and spatial distributions of the methylmercury concentrations in the umbilical cords tell us the history of the Minamata disease incident.

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