The art of poison and negligence

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Sunday, July 20, 2014


THE city of Minamata had only been a poor fishing and farming town in the island of Kyushu in Japan when it was poisoned by mercury ingested through the fish on their dinner tables.

One of history’s most tragic records of industrial pollution all started with the Chisso Corporation, a manufacturer of acetaldehyde used in the production of plastics. The residents of Minamata had relied almost exclusively on fish and shellfish from Minamata Bay as a source of protein. Then, in the early 1950’s, a series of “cat suicides” began—they convulsed like epileptics in the streets, sometimes falling into the sea and drowning.

Similar peculiar behavior began to appear sporadically in humans: People stumbled while walking. They had trouble hearing and swallowing. Their bodies were rocked with frenzied trembling. Buttons were harder to button. An entire town was dying before their very eyes. This was no post-sake comedy. This was the wrath of the scorned Minamata Bay—Since 1925, Chisso had paid indemnity to the local fishermen for possible damage to their fishing waters. The result: Mercury from the production process spilled into the bay, and as the heavy metal incorporated into methyl mercury chloride it entered the food chain—fish and shellfish, the residents’ primary source of protein.

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A perk of having a chemical engineer for a mother is having life’s most important lessons supplemented with concrete, scientific cases that perfectly illustrate the horror of human negligence.

Two points caught my immediate attention: One, “Be careful where you dump your sh*t. You never know how it finds its way back to you.” Human negligence does not seem to be diminishing with every generation of the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S Series.

In industrial regions of Southern China, 12.62 billion tons of polluted materials and 8.3 billion tons of wastewater were discharged into the waters off Guangdong in 2007. Like the residents of Minamata, more than 40 percent of the locals in these regions do not have access to safe drinking water. Let’s not even talk about the environmental disaster that is Pasig River, synonymous to “carelessly dumping your sh*t and now look where that’s gotten you.”

But on a deeper existential level, the “Poisoning of Minamata” (as I like to call it) illustrates how the deadly art of poison exploits our innermost desires and turns them against us.

In the art of poison, there is no perpetuator—only victim. Snow White, after all, did not knowingly eat a poisoned apple.

This brings me to my second point: “Be careful of what you eat. Choose your poison wisely.”

The Pew Internet and American Life project found in its report “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy” that the typical adolescent has 300 Facebook friends and 79 Twitter followers. Some have 1,069 Facebook friends and 120 Twitter followers. While Mark Zuckerburg is rolling in a red carpet of dollars, the typical adolescent is eating from the hands of mainstream media carrying with it the poison of social ignorance and, alas, human negligence.

How is human negligence exemplified in the skinny, borderline anorexic, pastel-clad body of the average teenager? Let us take, for example, my Filipino class. While the complicated business of writing a “komposisyon” is being lavishly discussed in front, the reporter’s voice breaking with strain, some others are intent on the business of painting their nails.

These same others perhaps settle for the meager marks that are the product of—surprise, surprise—Human Negligence. While the Negligent watch (and tweet vehemently about) Divergent and work out for an ass like Shailene Woodey’s, our President is making an ass out of himself.

The city of Minamata had only been a poor fishing and farming town in the island of Kyushu in Japan when it was poisoned by mercury ingested through the fish on their dinner tables. The Filipino youth had been the hope of a cancerous fatherland when it was struck dumb by the poison of their own self-inflicted negligence.

Is there no cure?

***

(Maria Karlene Shawn Isla Cabaraban is currently taking up Bachelor of Arts in Sociology-Anthropology at Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan. She spends her non-studying hours writing or reading or both in coffee shops. She spends her studying hours hoping it will make her a lawyer someday.)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on July 20, 2014.

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