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Mercury rises in the Nilgiris

For almost two decades, Hindustan Lever Limited’s thermometer factory in Kodaikanal functioned without alerting the employees or the people living in the region about the dangers mercury posed. But its fortune has run out. A Rs 1,000-crore lawsuit is on its way

By VK Shashikumar
Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu

Other Articles of the Series
PART I Hyderabad’s Stillborn Future
PART II The Island of hope
PART III  Mercury rises in the Nilgiris
PART IV  Bowing to Dow
PART V  Grapes of Wrath
PART VI  Tanneries pollute Vellore
PART VII  Fishy Tales
PART VIII  A Monsoon of Chemicals
PART IX  Alang the Waste Coast
If you are planning a summer vacation at Kodaikanal, the Princess of Hills nestled in the Nilgiris, you should know that the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has found that the mercury level here is 1.32 mg per cubic metre, about 2,640 times higher than the normal level of 0.5-10 nanogram per cubic metre.

For nearly two decades, the Hindustan Lever Limited’s (HLL) thermometer factory has been dumping mercury wastes down the hillside into the Pambar Shola forests. Mercury vapours escaping from the obsolete factory has had adverse effects on the lives of its more than 1,000 workers. The extent of contamination can be gauged from the fact that DAE discovered traces of the deadly metal on lichen samples from inside the forests, the region’s precious water source. Slowly the years of rampant chemical pollution are taking a toll on the employees. Already 17 workers (average age 32) have died of mercury poisoning.

The Queen in Distress: danger lies beneath Kodaikanal’s beauty
Photos Rana Chakraborty
For almost two decades, Hindustan Lever Limited’s thermometer factory in Kodaikanal functioned without alerting the employees or the people living in the region about the dangers mercury posed. But its fortune has run out. A Rs 1,000-crore lawsuit is on its way

Many families living around the factory are grappling with serious health problems as a result of poisoning. Women have been affected the most because they would be at home and would continually be subjected to mercury vapours being forcefully blown out by the fans in the factory workplace. Kodaikanal has an alarmingly high number of renal diseases. “I lost both my kidneys because of mercury poisoning and had to replace it at the Madurai Kidney Centre,” says Shanti Jaya Mary, 28. Her husband, John Kennedy, who worked in the factory for 18 years, is suffering from a host of ailments. Two of their three daughters have a severe thyroid problem while the other has growth deficiency.

“My family’s health has already cost us Rs 9 lakh. We are in debt and the only earning member is my mother-in-law. HLL should give us compensation,” she says.
Peter J. Sundarajan who used to work in the air-passing unit of the factory, where mercury vapours are present in high quantities, says his rib bones have become brittle. His gums bleed and he suffers from giddiness. These are again symptoms of mercury poisoning. Yanasundari used to work in the factory and says that mercury vapours would settle down on the clothes of workers. She has twice delivered stillborn babies.

Wherever Devraj Edward, 62, goes he carries a framed photograph of his son. Wilburt Brito was 23 when he died of kidney failure. He was a daily-wage worker at the factory, earning Rs 25 a day.

“He first complained of recurrent headaches. Then there was blood in his urine and he would feel nauseous. After Dr. Balaji at the government hospital diagnosed his illness we used to regularly take him to Madurai Kidney Hospital for dialysis. But the cost of a kidney transplant is approximately Rs 6 lakh and I did not have that kind of money. HLL killed my son and we will drag the company to court,” says Edward.

The 1,000-plus workers of HLL’s thermometer factory have formed the Ponds Hindustan Lever Limited Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association and are preparing for a legal battle to press for compensation, rehabilitation and remediation of the mercury-poisoned environment.

“We are preparing and planning to file a Rs 1,000-crore lawsuit against HLL,” says S. Raja Mohamed, general secretary of the association. “We are also calling on the Indian government to prosecute HLL for the murder of at least 17 workers,” says Navroz Mody, former toxics campaigner of Greenpeace India.

Bone of Contention: Sundarajan’s ribs have become brittle due to poisoning
Mody and the activists of the Palani Hills Conservation Council came to know of the pollution by HLL when they discovered mercury wastes in a scrap yard in the busy Moonjigal market. The mercury scrap was weighed and found to be approximately 7.4 tonnes.

Soon the people of Kodaikanal mounted protests. Their efforts bore fruit in March 2001, when the company was forced to close down the thermometer factory. “We are fighting for our survival and we will fight to the last,” says K. Gopalakrishnan of the workers welfare association.

The workers’ association had planned to approach the court for compensation before HLL’s annual general meeting scheduled to be held on June 24. “We have made a comprehensive database of 500-plus workers, including 105 women, and their severe health problems as one of the preparatory steps towards filing of the case,” says Mohamed. But at the Hazardous Waste Monitoring Committee (HWMC) meeting held at the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s (TNPCB) office on May 3, it was decided that TNPCB should recommend Indian Toxic Research Centre, Lucknow, to do a comprehensive epidemiological health survey of all affected workers and the local community.

“You can be sure that when we file our case it will be the strongest challenge ever mounted against a multinational company for failing to maintain the same safety and disclosure standards that they are required to in their home countries,” says Gopalakrishnan.

HLL, the subsidiary of Unilever, manufactures ‘35 power brands’ in India like Surf Excel, Pepsodent, Lux and Brooke Bond Red Label. In 1984, the year Bhopal gas disaster took place, a second-hand mercury factory owned by Cheseborough Ponds was relocated from Watertown, New York, to a site in Kodaikanal at an altitude of 2,000 metres. In 1997, HLL acquired Ponds India Ltd and the ownership of the factory changed hands.

Vaporised: Mary has lost her kidneys

Between 1984 and 2001, long after the plant’s ‘safe life’ period had expired, 165 million thermometers were manufactured for export to countries around the world. But HLL never informed the community or workers about the dangers of exposure to mercury. From HLL’s own records it is clear that by the time the factory closed down, approximately 20-30 tonnes of mercury were ‘lost’ during manufacturing processes. This was in addition to the mercury vapours released by the plant while in operation.

HLL claims much of the mercury waste recovered from the scrap yard (289 tonnes) has been shipped back to the US. But the fact remains that hundreds have been affected by mercury poisoning. John George, factory manager at Kodaikanal, says that HLL’s position is clearly stated on Unilever’s website. What can one make of a position that started with this line: “Our thermometer unit at Kodaikanal does not send any waste mercury or mercury contaminated waste outside the factory” and ended up admitting that the company had indeed shipped at a very conservative estimate 98 tonnes of mercury-contaminated glass to unsuspecting recycling agents all over south India.

HLL professes its commitment to exhibit “highest standards of corporate behaviour” and “follow best practicable means for minimising adverse environmental impact arising out of its operations”. Incidentally, Senthil Kumar, one of the three labourers contracted by HLL’s thermometer factory to remove mercury waste from the factory died seven months ago.

This article is published under the fellowship programme of the National Foundation for India

June 18 , 2005

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