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From Peter Alford,


THE dolphin- and whale-eaters of Taiji, whose bloody customs were exposed last year in The Cove documentary, which culminated in tensions with sister-city Broome, are accumulating unhealthy and possibly hazardous levels of mercury, a marine toxicology expert has found.

Tetsuya Endo's admittedly limited study of mercury levels in 50 Taiji people suggests the whaling town's population of 3400 has mercury levels at least 10 times the Japanese average, which is 2.55 parts per million for men and 1.43ppm for women.

Only three of the hair samples showed more than 50ppm mercury, where neurological damage becomes a risk.

But since all 50 samples were gathered from friends of Junichiro Wakayama, a rare local activist against dolphin killing, Dr Endo suspects the group's consumption was more moderate than some other townspeople.

"I want to collect more samples from Taiji," Dr Endo, a world-recognized expert on mercury toxicity and other hazardous marine pollutants, told The Weekend Australian. "But the problem is, I don't think people will co-operate with me any more; they are a whaling town."

Mercury and other heavy metal compounds were commonly discharged as industrial by-products into Japan's coastal waters until the late 1950s, when the Minamata poisoning tragedy, which killed more than 1700 people, came to light.

However, toxic material continues to circulate through the marine food chain.

Among his samples, Dr Endo, from Hokkaido's Health Sciences University, found average levels in men of 21.6ppm and 11.9ppm in women - the highest level he found was 67.2ppm in a middle-aged man.

"Above 50ppm is the grey area for health effects," he said yesterday. "Above 100ppm, you are risking Minamata disease. But for pregnant women, even 10ppm can affect the neurological development of unborn children."

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