Activists Expose Hindustan Lever’s Illegal Mercury Waste Dumps in Kodaikanal,India

Press release - August 7, 1999
KODAIKANAL, India — Community groups and activists from Greenpeace, Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) cordoned off a local scrapyard containing several tons of mercury-contaminated broken thermometers from Hindustan Lever’s thermometer factory in the hill resort of Kodaikanal, Tamilnadu.

The scrapyard is located in a crowded part of town on top of a slope with terraced cultivation and habitation. The highly hazardous mercury-bearing wastes are stored haphazardly in open and torn sacks, with the contents spilled onto the workspace, frequented by barefeet, unprotected workers.

Greenpeace and PHCC also found mercury contaminated wastes from Hindustan Lever, a 51% owned subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever, dumped behind the factory wall onto the slopes leading to Pambar Shola, a highly productive watershed and one of the last remaining pockets of megabiodiversity in the region. Recently, the shola was officially designated as a sanctuary area.

A number of workers and ex-workers, especially those working in the mercury sections of the factory, complain of a variety of health problems and unsound working conditions in the factory's mercury sections.

Mercury in contact with microorganisms in soil or water becomes methyl mercury that through air, water or skin exerts severe effects on the central nervous system (brain), kidneys and liver. Pregnant women, fetuses and women of child-bearing age, and young children are particularly at risk of poisoning by methyl mercury.

According to the company, Hindustan Lever's entire production from the thermometer factory is exported to the United States, for sale in Germany, UK, Spain, USA, Australia and Canada. The mercury for the plant is imported, mainly from the United States.The factory, set up in 1977, was a second-hand plant imported from Cheseborough Ponds from the United States, after the US factory was shutdown for unknown reasons.

Unilever's mission statement may read like poetry; but their actions in Kodaikanal expose them as toxic traders who run polluting industries in developing countries to service the markets of the rich nations, said Navroz Mody, Greenpeace's Toxics Campaigner in India and a long-time resident of Kodaikanal.

All that talk about the industry having learnt a lesson from Bhopal is nonsense. Here's an example of another multinational applying double standards, polluting the environment, exposing its workers and pouring poisons onto a sensitive watershed forest, and doing this for more than two decades, R. Kannan, an activist with Palni Hills Conservation Council. No lessons have been learnt, either by companies such as Hindustan Lever, or by our regulatory authorities.

For substances like mercury, banning is the only way. India must begin work on a mercury phase-out plan and encouarage adoption of cleaner alternatives, said Rajesh Rangarajan of Chennai-based Toxics Link.

Greenpeace and Palni Hills Conservation Council hold Hindustan Lever criminally liable and demand that:

1. HLL should immediately end the use of mercury in the Hindustan Lever Thermometer factory and ensure that the livelihoods of workers are not jeopardised due to your negligent behaviour;

2. A full investigation should be conducted into the extent and nature of mercury pollution caused by the factory within its premises, at the scrapyard and in the surrounding environment.

3. Hindustan Lever must, under strict supervision, clean up the Munjikal dump site as it poses an immediate and ongoing threat to children at an adjacent school and densely populated community. Hindustan Lever mustaccount for all past waste shipments to other parts of Tamilnadu.

4. A full investigation should be conducted to assess the damage to health among Lever's current and ex-workers, and HLL should pay to restore their health and compensate them for the loss of quality of life;

5. Hindustan Lever must be held criminally and financially liable for the damage done to workers, community and environment of Kodaikanal and the Palani Hills.