Coastal Post Online

January 2001

Mercury Perdition In Tomales Bay

By Karen Nakamura

The first week of December, amidst the chaos of the presidential election, an item floated through the consciousness of Marinites and passed on its way. That item stated that Tomales Bay is being poisoned by methylmercury. This is no funny-ha-ha and those who have seen this particularly insidious poison at work must have shuttered at the news.

Seven species of fish are being affected although it's hard to see how any are escaping this hell. A report in the San Francisco Chronicle warned that the mercury levels were similar to those in the San Francisco Bay, which is even more horrifying. Pregnant women and children are particularly being warned by the Marin County Health Department not to eat the fish. Luckily, oysters, mussels and clams are not affected.

The mercury, apparently, is leaching from an open-pit mine located six miles upstream from the Bay. This mine was active from 1968 to 1972 and is now considered an EPA Superfund site.

Several months ago this reporter, unaware of the tragedy unfolding in Tomales Bay, wrote about the dangers of mercury poisoning as observed in the Minamata Mercury Poisoning scandal that broke out in Japan in the 1950s and 60s. In light of the new findings, it seems prudent to dig a little deeper into statistics to make our readership take notice. As an article on the subject, published February 7, 1997 by Kenneth Friedman, (, explained, "...mercury poisoning is more than just a fish story."

After a rash of cat suicides, performed by jumping off a cliff, women in Minamata, a small Japanese fishing village, began giving birth to deformed babies and those with dysfunctional nervous systems. The source was traced to methylmercury dumped directly into the bay by the Chisso Company. It took massive demonstrations and professional outcry to get the company to cease dumping. West Marin has had a mercury leaching problem since 1968.

The long list of symptoms include: exhaustion, clouded consciousness, marked emotional instability, headaches, involuntary muscle spasms, cold hands and feet, dizziness or vertigo and fuzzy vision. There's joint and muscle pain, stiffness, nervous heart, sleeplessness, intestinal disturbances, bloating, diarrhea alternating with constipation, irritation at internal contact sites, bleeding gums, mouth blisters, aching teeth, a metal taste, frequent urination and more. Even scarier is the fact that mercury poisoning frequently causes cerebral palsy.

Mercury poison is so pervasive that even a tablespoon of liquid mercury spilled in a home can cause hospitalization. If fumes circulate through a house, the house may need to be razed. Public health officials don't want the public to clean up any spill Rather, they insist on sending in a team to insure any and all residue has been removed. Again, to make the point, the Tomales Bay mine has been declared a Superfund site.

According to a report presented at the International Federation of Teratology Societies July of 1988 in Kyoto, Japan (, the disease broke out mainly among fisherman and their families and was seen in all ages, except infants. Male adults were more affected than female though no difference was seen in children. The death rate was high and the disease could break out any time from a few days to a few years.

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