The Asahi Shimbun reports that nearly four decades have passed since the nation’s worst outbreak of food poisoning. In 1968, thousands of consumers were sickened as a result of tainted cooking oil manufactured by Kanemi Soko Co. Symptoms included black acne-like rashes all over the face. With the passage of time, public memory of the disease is fading.
About 14,000 people who ate food cooked in oil made by the Kita-Kyushu-based company developed cancer or experienced major problems with their internal organs. The poisoning caused many stillbirths as well as premature deliveries. Poisoning cases occurred across wide areas of western Japan.
There is still no effective treatment.
Many victims prefer to conceal their sufferings for fear they will face discrimination and prejudice. For a long time it was believed the poisoning was caused by polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) that accidentally got mixed in with the oil during the manufacturing process. But this was later found to be incorrect. The principal cause turned out to be a dioxin that is far more toxic than PCB. Chikara Sakaguchi, the then minister of health, acknowledged this fact to the Diet in December 2001.
The confirmation that dioxin was involved put the spotlight back on a health tragedy that had largely been forgotten. Lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, New Komeito, began working on legislation to provide fresh relief to sufferers. Since more than 37 years have passed since the first outbreak of the disease, the legislation should compensate for the delay in providing relief by offering adequate aid for as many victims as possible.
In hindsight, the government’s initial response to the outbreak was misguided. With cases of severe symptoms reported in a wide range of areas, the government should have implemented checkups on everybody who had eaten food cooked in oil. That way, the government could have grasped the full picture and scope of the poisoning outbreak. It would have then been able to develop effective relief measures based on the findings.
As it turned out, a group of experts appointed by the government diagnosed potential sufferers so they could gain certification from local governments that they had the disease, thus making them eligible to receive compensation. However, the diagnoses were based on a limited number of symptoms, such as skin rashes.
Less than 2,000 people were officially certified as sufferers of the disease. All they each received in consolation payments and partial subsidies for their medical expenses from the manufacturer was 230,000 yen. To add insult to injury, some of the victims were eventually ordered by the government to pay back the money that was later labeled “temporary restitution.”
A group of certified patients filed a damages suit against the manufacturers and the state. In 1987, the Supreme Court mediated a settlement which resulted in the plaintiffs dropping their suit against the government. The government then demanded they pay back the restitution money totaling 2.7 billion yen.
The money was paid out after a lower court ruled in favor of the patients. Some sufferers had already spent the funds and, unable to repay it, committed suicide.
The LDP and Komeito last week decided that they would draft the victim relief bill that enables debt forgiveness. The bill would require the government to finance research to develop treatments for all diseases caused by toxic chemicals, including this one, and pay a reward to patients who cooperated in the research. This arrangement was apparently proposed because it is legally difficult for the government to make direct payment to patients to support their health care and living expenses.
Even so, the disease caused an inordinate amount of suffering. Victims were discriminated against for many years as the real cause of the disease remained a mystery. That in itself abundantly justifies special legislation to help victims of the disease.
On Sunday, victims gathered in Kita-Kyushu in their first meeting in 19 years since the settlement brokered by the Supreme Court.
During the meeting, many participants called for fresh investigation into individual cases and early relief for all victims, including those who have not yet been certified. Their calls should not be slighted.