Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu

Page - March 21, 2005
Background In 1984, a thermometer manufacturing facility was imported from the United States and set up in Kodaikanal. Raw materials for the thermometers were imported from the United States and finished thermometers were sent back to the US, from where they were distributed to markets abroad. Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) acquired this facility in 1997 as part of a global take-over of Ponds (the original owner) by Unilever, parent company to HLL. For almost two decades, this thermometer factory functioned without alerting either the employees or the Kodaikanal community about the dangers it posed to the surroundings and to the workers. By the late 1990s, mercury contamination in the area was hundreds of times over the permissible limits of .01mg/kg in the soil. Over a period of years, mercury that escaped the plant as vapour and/or was dumped as waste would amount to several tonnes.

A view of the sensitive Pambar Shola forest area contaminated by mercury from the Hindustan Lever Limited thermometer factory in Kodaikanal.

Present Status

SUPREME COURT MONITORING COMMITTEE ON HAZARDOUS WASTES

Report from SCMC visit to Tamilnadu dated September 20-22, 2004

"From the records placed before the SCMC, the facts are as follows: In March 2001, local citizens led by Greenpeace (NGO) discovered a scrap yard bearing mercury wastes which they sourced to the HLL plant. During recovery of the mercury scrap it was weighed and found to be approximately 7.4 tonnes. The discovery of this illegal discharge of hazardous wastes led to further inquiries which opened up a Pandora's box of mercury contamination in the working area of the factory and its surrounding natural environment including river, lake and forest. It was also admitted that mercury scrap of similar nature had been disposed of to scrap dealers as a routine practice. The SCMC was informed that much of the mercury waste recovered from the scrap yard has since been shipped back to the US.

However, workers affected by mercury poisoning and an environment and plant contaminated with mercury remain as living heritages that need to go for rehabilitation. The ill-effects of mercury poisoning and the negative impacts of mercury on the natural environment are well-known. Minamata disease (in Japan) has been documented in detail. 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 affected are both urgently required, especially in view of the fact that the area is also a tourist spot of major importance."

Scientific studies (including those conducted by Greenpeace) have confirmed extremely high levels of mercury contamination. Levels of mercury in the soil outside the factory indicate an elevation of 25 times over the lowest reading, and 250 times over permissible limits. A Department of Atomic Energy study found mercury levels at 1.32 microgram per cubic meter against the normal level of 0.5-10 nanogram per cubic metre; effectively an aberration of between 132 to 2,640 times. This was observed on analysing lichen samples from inside the Pambar Shola forests.This contamination is the result of mercury vapor forcefully blown out by fans, and there is every reason to believe that these high levels of contamination would also be reflected in the surrounding environment.

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