BACKGROUND: It is well known that large-scale poisonings caused by methylmercury occurred in Japan (Minamata, in the 1950s) and Iraq. However, in contrast to Iraq, there have been few sound epidemiologic studies in Minamata. We evaluated the effect of methylmercury on neurologic signs using data from a 1971 population-based study. METHODS: Villages in 3 areas were selected for study: the Minamata area (a high-exposure area), the Goshonoura area (a medium-exposure area), and the Ariake area (a low-exposure area). We used place of residence as the exposure indicator. We examined associations between methylmercury exposure and the following neurologic signs measured on clinical examination: paresthesia of whole body, paresthesia of extremities, paresthesia around the mouth, ataxia, dysarthria, tremors, and pathologic reflexes. RESULTS: Total population was 1120 in the high-exposure villages, 1845 in the medium-exposure villages, and 1165 in the low-exposure villages. In the Minamata area, 87% (n=833) of the eligible population (age 10 years and older) participated in the 1971 investigations, in the Goshonoura area, 93% (n = 1450), and in the Ariake area, 77% (n = 755). Compared with subjects in the Ariake area, the subjects in the Minamata area manifested neurologic signs more frequently. The highest prevalence odds ratio was observed for paresthesia around the mouth (110; 95% confidence interval = 16-820). Although residents in the Goshonoura area had been exposed less heavily than those in the Minamata area, Goshonoura residents also had increased prevalence of neurologic signs. CONCLUSION: Long-term exposure to methylmercury has a strong adverse impact on neurologic signs among residents in a local community.
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