Representatives of workers of the Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) in Kodaikanal, a popular hill station in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, traveled all the way to Bombay in western India and addressed the media on Wednesday to urge the company's share-holders to raise to raise the issues of mercury contamination and long term medical remediation of the victims at the Annual General Meeting (AGM).
The HLL had closed down permanently its controversial thermometer plant at Kodaikanal six years ago in the wake of allegations by environmental activists that it was polluting the environment of the hill station.
But workers exposed to mercury poisoning when it was operational are struggling to cope with their shattered lives.
They 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.
Activists had come to know of mercury pollution came to know of the pollution by HLL when they discovered mercury wastes in a scrap yard in the busy Moonjikal market. The mercury scrap was weighed and found to be approximately 7.4 tonnes.
Eleven ex-workers exposed to toxic mercury (representing about 500 affected workers) highlighted at the Bombay newsconference the various health problems like neurological disorders, tremors, bleeding gums, heart disorders, renal malfunctions and high levels of abortions among women during their work at the thermometer factory.
To highlight the intensity of the problem, 5 children born to the ex-workers were also present, these children suffer from various known mercury induced illnesses such as brain disorders, heart disorders and congenital deformities.
Appealing to the shareholders of HLL, the ex-workers said, " Shareholders should not only be interested in the profits but also demand responsibility from the company. Kodaikanal is a liability that the company cannot escape from and shareholders should ensure that justice is done to the victims of HLL here."
Among the five children present, 12 year old Prem Anand suffers from brain disorder, 7 year old Yesudas Carmel suffers from heart disorder and 5 year old Raj Kumar and 6 year old twins Pradeesh and Prasanna suffer from congenital deformities. Two children suffering from mercury related illnesses have also died. Ex-workers also report that about 20 workers of average age of 35 years have died so far due to the exposure to mercury after working at the factory.
Even now, several thousand tons of mercury-contaminated wastes are lying inside and around the factory. In early 2003, the company was forced by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to export 289 tonnes of mercury-contaminated material a mercury recycling facility in United States. No such facility capable of treating mercury wastes is available in India.
Amidst tightening environmental regulation in the US due to mercury's toxic effects, Chesebrough Pond's Inc. exported its decades-old mercury thermometer factory to India from the US in 1983. The factory was later acquired by HLL, a subsidiary of European MNC Unilever. The factory was registered as a "glass manufacturing unit" to evade environmental and health safety controls required of a mercury using facility, (a clear indication of the corruption the company resorts to).
The factory produced 165 million thermometers between 1984-'01 for export mostly to the US and EU. During its operations HLL dumped tons of mercury into the pristine atmosphere of Kodaikanal. The Department of Atomic Energy's Report shows that even 2 years after the factory was closed, there was 7 times more mercury in the air of Kodaikanal than considered safe for exposure of general populations in the European Union.
Mercury is a known neurotoxin. Its effects are most severe in the central nervous system. Mercury can cause brain damage in developing fetuses and mild tremors, mental disorders, motor and emotional disturbances, even death, in exposed adults. Even the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes (SCMC) has taken a strict note of the existing mercury contamination in an around the HLL factory site and fixing the liability on HLL ordered the company to " reinstate/restore damaged/destroyed elements of the environment ".
The SCMC also recommended that HLL should pay an advance of 50 crores towards remediation and independent of this should also set up a health clinic and a non polluting employment center for the health and economic rehabilitation of the affected workers.
"Having suffered from HLL's lack of understanding of a well known toxin such as mercury, we sought information on toxins in household products such as soaps and detergents, shampoos and sprays manufactured by HLL. Concerns for toxics in HLL's products range from use of cheap industrial cleansers like SLS and SLES on shampoos, or the presence of pthalates or parabens which are known to be carcinogenic, endocrine disruptors, damage the reproductive system, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) for perfumes in the product which can cause damages to practically every organ in the body. Children and women have been found to be particularly vulnerable to these toxics.
"We have found that besides the presence of a vast range of toxic chemicals in their consumer products, HLL is perhaps the single largest single contributor to heavy metal poisoning in India through the arsenic content of its soaps, detergents, shampoos. The dispersed nature of detergents and soaps ensures that HLL's arsenic and other toxics reach every waste stream from village wells to surface waterbodies and underground aquifers where it accumulates and resurfaces to poison the water source," workers representatives charged.
They also went on to demand that the HLL own up to its liabilities for the mercury contamination in Kodaikanal and its impact on workers, their families and residents of Kodaikanal. HLL cleanup its toxic factory site in Kodaikanal in a transparent operation to mitigate damage to a unique forest and lake ecosystem. And HLL publicly declare the toxics in each of their Consumer products, (manufactured or distributed) as they are required to under EU regulation, whether or not HLL thinks they pose a danger.