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Public health experts on Yokkaichi asthma

December 12, 2011

Medical history in Japan – by Tomohisa Sumida

The cheerful blaze from the chimney stack,
Up in the air brightens our future’s face.
We dream and never look back,
As this sky leads to the starry space.

Thus goes the school song of Yokkaichi Minami High School, with lyrics by the renowned poet Tanikawa Shuntarô and music by the great composer Takemitsu Tôru. The song, from 1963, praised the development of the Petrochemical Combinat of the city of Yokkaichi. By that time, some residents had already started to suffer from asthma attacks caused by the pollution of the air and fishers had found their catch in the bay stinking. The chimney stacks were creating serious environmental pollution.

The city of Yokkaichi had already organised a committee to measure the pollution in 1960, and the national government sent a research committee to assess the situation in 1963. Yokkaichi established a medical aid program for air pollution in 1965 – the first of its kind in the world. Several patients brought a suit against the companies in 1967 and won in 1972. Alongside those local and national authorities and lawyers at the court, university professors in public health were also investigating the problem: Yoshida Katsumi at Mie Prefectural University and Mizuno Hiroshi at Nagoya University joined the investigative committees as experts in public health.

Yokkaichi Petrochemical Combinat, 1972. Yomiuri Shimbun

Yokkaichi Petrochemical Combinat, 1972. Yomiuri Shimbun

But what does it mean that they were ‘experts’? Neither Yoshida nor Mizuno had previously worked on air pollution. To put it simply, they joined the investigative team because they were public health professors at universities near Yokkaichi. During the Occupation after World War II, many medical universities established departments of public health. Many researchers in those new departments committed themselves to pollution problems around the 1960s, and Yoshida and Mizuno followed this pattern.

They had developed close contact with health officials at the city and Mie Prefecture. Yoshida moved to Mie Prefectural University in 1955 after his research on the measurement of vitamin B2 in the human body at Kyoto University. From his arrival onwards, he often met a hygiene official, Sakamaki Ichio, at the prefecture; Sakamaki was a member of Yoshida’s laboratory at Kyoto University before him. In consultation with Sakamaki, Yoshida worked on improving ovicide to manage parasites at first, then began to address the stinking fish around the Combinat. Likewise, Mizuno was drawn into the local health administration. He had experience working at health centres in Nagoya. After World War II, he returned to Nagoya University and established the Department of Public Health. In 1959–60, Mizuno was shown a blueprint of the development of Yokkaichi by the director of Yokkaichi City Health Centre. Mizuno suggested organising a committee to measure pollution and became a member.

After the lawsuit began, Yoshida supported the plaintiff’s claim, facing the difficulty of proving a link between the exhaust gas and the symptoms. Although Yoshida and Mizuno were unfamiliar with the problem of air pollution, they were committed to the solving the problem of asthma in Yokkaichi in collaboration with public health practitioners and lawyers.

Tomohisa Sumida is a PhD student in History of Science at the University of Tokyo and a Research Fellow (DC1) of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.



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