Mercury rising for Johnny Depp

Hollywood heartthrob Johnny Depp stars in a movie about mercury poisoning that premiers in Berlin tomorrow.

The film, Minamata, sees Johnny play W. Eugene Smith, a celebrated photo journalist who lived for two years in a Japanese community devastated by industrial pollution.

Depp plays war photographer W. Eugene Smith. Photo: Larry Horricks

Just like the recently released Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo, the film shines a spotlight on a community beholden to a large chemical plant that poisoned the population for decades. In the case of DuPont, the company knew the effects but continued production.

A family impacted by mercury poisoning

The Chisso Corporation released untreated industrial wastewater containing mercury into Minamata Bay between 1932 and 1968.

In 1956 the severe impacts of mercury poisoning was formally labelled ‘Minamata disease’.

Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that is still being used in everyday consumer products. Europe has committed to the Minamata Convention to phase out and limit mercury. The challenge now is to ensure it is implemented globally.

While cat, dog, pig and human deaths continued after the Minamata disaster for 36 years, the government and company did little to prevent an epidemic that by March 2001 had recognised 2,265 victims. Over 1,700 have died.

The effects were so severe in cats, it came to be known as “dancing cat fever”. By 2004, Chisso had paid $86 million in compensation, and in the same year was ordered to clean up its contamination.

Smith has been described as “perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay.” He was commissioned by LIFE magazine to cover the Minimata story in 1971.

Film publicists say Smith exposed:

“the devastating effects of corporate greed, complicit local police and government. Armed with only his trusted camera against a powerful corporation, Smith must gain the broken community’s trust and find the images that will bring this story to the world. Johnny Depp plays the legendary American photographer with his usual consummate dedication, movingly demonstrating how fighting one’s inner demons is a necessary step on the way to greater victories.”

Smith on assignment for LIFE magazine in Minimata in the 1970s.

Smith was attacked by Chisso Company employees near Tokyo the following year, an attempt to stop him from further publicising the effects of Minamata disease. He was partially blinded in one eye, prompting his wife Aileen to take over the LIFE project.

Aileen turned the chapter into a book, on which the film is based. She will attend the world premier at the Berlinale international film festival tomorrow. Minamata is due for general release in the Autumn.

The Minamata film poster

Is mercury a problem in Europe?

Each year, a third of all babies born in the EU have mercury levels above “the recommended safe limit” (Bellanger et al., 2013), though contamination is worse in countries with higher levels of fish consumption. Eating predator species, such as tuna or swordfish, is more harmful because mercury bioaccumulates up the food chain. Women in Portugal and Spain have been found with five to seven times more mercury the EU average. Dental fillings and other products containing mercury, such as light bulbs, are also a contamination pathway.

Depp on set, sporting Smith’s hallmark hat

The potential impact on child brain development is considered lifelong, and can result in a significant reduction in Intelligence Quotient. “There are very significant health, social and economic benefits of providing proactive public information on managing dietary exposure to mercury,” the EEA says.

Europe has historically emitted a lot of mercury, but now leads the world on regulatory protections. But mercury does not respect borders and global emissions have been increasing from activities such as coal burning and gold mining.

Depp with Minamata co-star, Bill Nighy

In Europe, the largest source of mercury is dental amalgam, while coal fired powered plants produce the most airborne emissions. Globally, humans have released an estimated 1 to 3 million tonnes of mercury into the environment during the last 500 years. There is thought to be up to 350,000 tonnes in oceans worldwide, two thirds from human activity, and about 60 times less in the atmosphere. About half of European rivers and lakes (46,000) exceed a mercury concentration set to protect fish-eating birds and mammals. Once released into the air or water, mercury can remain in the environment for thousands of years. So even with immediate action, it will take generations for mercury to decline to pre-industrial levels.

Those eating fish are most contaminated.

The Zero Mercury Working Group is an international coalition working to eliminate all human use of mercury. Formed in 2005 by the European Environmental Bureau and the Mercury Policy Project, it includes more than 110 public interest environmental and health NGOs from over 55 countries.

International coordinator, Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, said: “In Minamata, people died from eating highly contaminated fish. Unfortunately, mercury is still being used the world over, including from a wide range of everyday products and processes, contaminating the environment and people. Limiting its use would reduce risks, particularly to the most vulnerable people.

“While the global threat of mercury persists, Europe’s steadfast commitment to the Minamata Convention to phase out and limit mercury and its leadership is needed. The challenge now is to ensure that the convention is implemented globally to ‘Make Mercury History’.”

Mercury is highly mobile and does not respect borders. UN graphic.