Workers die after mercury exposure

A Unilever subsidiary is responsible for disposing tonnes of mercury throughout the south of India

Feature story - 15 November, 2002
The gas leak that killed thousands in Bhopal 18 years ago was the worst industrial disaster in history and a poignant reminder that multinational companies must not dump their dirty technologies on developing countries. Although Bhopal is the worst case, it is not the only one in India.

Fences at Hindustan Lever Limited keep public scrutiny out but they haven't kept mercury waste in.

The Greenpeace Thousand Bhopals Jatha is a bus tour travelling to 25 toxic hotspots throughout India. The Thousand Bhopals tour represents thousands of ordinary people and communities whose voices are never heard. These people continue to be unjustly exposed to unsafe toxic substances and corporate environmental "crimes" with consequent health affects, sometimes even leading to death.

This is the case in Chennai on the south-east coast of India where workers at the Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) mercury thermometer factory died after exposure to mercury.

A subsidiary of Unilever, the HLL factory was shut down by the provincial pollution control board in March 2001 after Greenpeace and local groups exposed its illegal dumping of mercury waste with recycling merchants in Kodaikanal and elsewhere in the province.

The Indian People's Tribunal held a public hearing in September and released its Interim Report noting the lack of transparency in HLL's declarations to the statutory bodies as well as its false declarations on the amount of mercury used, stored or illegally sold offsite. The Tribunal also stated HLL defied a specific order from the Pollution Control Board to undertake no activity at the plant. Instead HLL dug out the foundations of the manufacturing unit and recovered large amounts of mercury.

Two activists determined that HLL not forget its obligation to the community chained themselves to the entrance of the factory during the Thousands Bhopals stop in Chennai. They were joined by ex-workers and widows of former workers who died after mercury exposure demanding that HLL release their health records in keeping with the Pollution Control Board commitments.

The Indian People's Tribunal has drawn the government's attention to the hazard posed by the disposal of over four tonnes of mercury throughout the south of India, against the company's earlier claim that 416 kg had been dispersed to recycling merchants.

"This is a classic case of lack of corporate accountability by a multinational. Such practices would never be allowed anywhere else in the world. HLL is responsible for damage beyond national jurisdiction," said Ananthapadmanabhan, Executive Director, Greenpeace India. "Their liability must include responsibility for environmental cleanup and restoration."

The Tribunal also noted that the company under-reported by 10 tonnes, the amount of mercury used and presumed lost to the environment. The report states that: 'In this regard it would be remiss of the panel to refrain from noting that the manner in which information has been presented, the contradictions in the statements and subsequent re-workings of the mercury balance, indicate a concerted attempt to misrepresent with false declarations the true facts in the matter.'