Loss of feeling in fingers and toes: Classic signs of mercury poisoning found in 90% of Grassy Narrows people

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More than 90 per cent of the population at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations is showing signs of mercury poisoning, according to new research released on Tuesday by Japanese experts.

Mercury was dumped in the river that flows through the two northwestern Ontario communities by Reed Paper, upstream in Dryden, Ont., in the 1960s and early 1970s. Recent scientific reports show the water is still contaminated.

So do the health effects, according to Dr. Masanori Hanada, who has been studying the impact of the mercury on people in the First Nations and in Minimata, Japan, for 40 years.

“If 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,” Hanada said during a visit to Grassy Narrows on Saturday.

Hanada also sounded the alarm for a new generation of residents of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong (also known as Whitedog) First Nations. People not even born when the mercury was being dumped in the river are demonstrating the symptoms of the poisoning, he said

The majority of the population is experiencing sensory deprivation — the loss of feeling in fingers and toes which is a classic symptom of mercury poisoning, he said.

‘Everything is more difficult’

Barbara and Raphael Fobister

Barbara and Raphael Fobister both say they’ve lost feeling in their fingers, making everyday tasks such as cooking more difficult. (Jody Porter/CBC)

“I can’t do any sewing unless I look at the needle and see if it’s in my hand,” said Barbara Fobister, 63. “In the kitchen, when I have to peel potatoes, everything is more difficult.”

A total of 84 people from the two communities, that have a combined population of approximately 1,750 on reserve, were examined in 2014. Of all those tested, only seven people showed no sign of sensory disturbance.

The most surprising thing in the test results is that younger generations are affected, Hanada said.

“I was born in 1979 and I see that in the community. It’s almost like a normal way for people to act,” Chrissie Swain said.

More precise research is needed to determine the root cause of the symptoms in young people, Hanada said.

Chrissie Swain

Chrissie Swain, 37, has been helping to maintain a logging blockade at Grassy Narrows since 2002 to prevent any further damage to the community’s traditional territory. (Jody Porter/CBC)

“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,” he said.

People in the community find solutions for everyday tasks such as trouble doing up buttons and zippers or navigating the touch screen on a smartphone, but they should be compensated for the hardship, he said.

A compensation board was established in 1986 as part of settlement between Ontario, the pulp mill and the First Nations, but fewer than 30 per cent of the people who apply to the Mercury Disability Board are approved for a pension.

Neither Barbara Fobister, nor her husband Raphael, 64, are among them. Raphael Fobister said the Japanese tests show he has one of the highest levels of mercury in the community.

Canada ‘should be ashamed’

“The doctors in Canada are in complete denial that we are being poisoned by mercury,” he said. “I think the government needs to come out in the open and say it is a problem and we’re going to stop it.”

“They should be ashamed for the amount of time they’ve done nothing,” Barbara Fobister adds.

Swain said she is still navigating the complicated process of getting an appointment to be tested through the compensation board.

“I wish Canada would do the same kind of testing that the Japanese do,” she said.

The Japanese team urged Canadian researchers to collaborate to study the health concerns at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations, Hanada said.

“They need the Canadian doctors, who live in Ontario, they can come here to look at their lives and their disease and do the testing,” he said. “These collaborations can bring more exact evidence of this incident.”

Dr. Masanori Hanada

‘Surprisingly, high rates of sensory disturbances can also be seen in the younger generations,’ Dr. Masanori Hanada, centre, delivers the results of his latest study to people at Grassy Narrows First Nation. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Meanwhile, Hanada echoes calls from Swain and the chiefs of both First Nations for an immediate cleanup of the mercury that continues to contaminate the river.

Raphael Fobister goes a step further, calling for the mill in Dryden to be permanently closed.

“It’s a cost and the cost is too high,” he said. “It costs people’s lives, people’s health and animal’s health and the environment’s health and that’s why I think they should shut it down.”

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Loss of feeling in fingers and toes: Classic signs of mercury poisoning found in 90% of Grassy Narrows people

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