Kodaikanal (Tamil Nadu): The death of a 47-year-old man who had worked for a Hindustan Lever thermometer factory for 18 years brought out hundreds of ex-employees, who had also been exposed to toxic mercury, to the streets.
P. Natarajan passed away Thursday, prompting more than 500 protestors, who said he had been slowly poisoned to death by mercury contamination, to block roads and demand an autopsy to assess the possibility of mercury-induced damage.
Many in the crowd, including civil rights and environmental activists, had also worked with Natarajan in the factory on the outskirts of this resort town before it was shut down by the government in March 2001.
A large number of workers were exposed to mercury because of unsafe working conditions and the failure of the management to inform employees about the dangers of toxic metal when the factory started in 1983, said a former worker K. Gopalakrishnan.
"We learnt about the harmful effects on mercury only recently from friends and experts outside," he added.
"Even though mercury is a neuro-toxic chemical and a known poison, HLL (Hindustan Lever Ltd) chose to hide safety information from the workers and wilfully poisoned them."
Mercury is a nerve poison that can cause subtle to severe long-term effects, including kidney damage, even at very low concentrations.
Natarajan was employed in the mercury filling area, one of the high-exposure areas.
Scores of people in the area suffer from skin diseases, premature greying, incessant headaches, stomach pain, kidney problems and blood in the urine, say the former workers who approached the Supreme Court in 2005 demanding compensation.
"HLL has caused irreparable damage to the health of the workers. More than 20 workers between the ages of 22 and 35 years have died due to poisoning from the factory in the last 18 years," Mahendra Babu, president of the Ponds-HLL Ex Mercury Worker's Welfare Association, told IANS.
Greenpeace activist Navroz Mody said: "The Indian government must prosecute HLL for the murder of at least 17 workers."
In 1983, Hindustan Lever's predecessor Pond's India Ltd relocated a 30-year thermometer factory from Watertown, New York, to India. The factory had reportedly shut down in New York for environmental reasons.
Once in India, the factory was allowed to import mercury, glass and other raw material, export all thermometers and leave behind the mercury wastes in India, association staffers alleged.
The owner was allowed to convert agricultural land for industrial use and set up shop on a bluff whose slopes drained into the perennial Pamban River through the Shola forests of the Palani-Nilgiri ranges, they added.
According to the former employees, in 16 years of operation, HLL and its previous owner Pond's India Ltd exposed between 600 and 800 workers to mercury in the workplace. Mercury spills were common.
Reacting to complaints from workers and the public, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ordered the factory to shut down and clean up. At least 300 tonnes of mercury waste has been sent back to the US, Hindustan Lever says.
The Supreme Court Monitoring Committee has also acknowledged mercury related health damage of workers and community residents: "The situation at HLL is extremely serious in nature. There can be no two opinions that remediation and rehabilitation of the natural environment and of workers and others are both urgently required..."