Unilever Admits To Dumping

Unilever Confesses to Dumping: will clean up but not come clean

Press release - June 19, 2001
MUMBAI, India — Conceding to the demands of citizens groups and Greenpeace, Unilever has agreed to the permanent closure of its polluting mercury thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, and to undertake a clean-up of 5.3 tons of mercury wastes dumped by the company at a local scrapyard. Amidst denials by the company of environmental double-standards or any illegal toxic waste dumping, Greenpeace, Unilever ex-workers and Kodaikanal community groups exposed and cordoned off one of Unilever's illegal dumpsite in a crowded part of the Southern Indian tourist town.

"Unilever's agreement now to clean up the scrapyard is a clear admission of its guilt," said Eco Matser, Greenpeace's toxics campaigner in the Netherlands. "But the Kodaikanal dumpsite is only a small portion of this company's toxic liabilities. The company's shoddy disposal of mercury wastes exposes its scant regard for the environment in countries like India where environmental regulation is lax," he said.

Greenpeace has called on the Ministry of Environment to acknowledge their shortcomings and fulfil their responsibility of protecting the environment by initiating an action plan to rapidly phase in safe, non-toxic alternatives to mercury use in India.

Ex-workers from Hindustan Lever, the Indian subsidiary that owns the mercury thermometer factory, say that the company's double-standards were also evident in their casual attitude towards mercury exposure in the workplace, and in the company's continuing and unscientific denials that any such exposure occurred.

The company claims that none of the 140 current workers, or any of the 250 or so ex-workers, (many of who resigned in the past due to health reasons), are at all affected by mercury. Ten worker below the age of 40 have died while employed at the plant. No investigations were performed at the time of death. Ex-workers report kidney problems, chronic stomachaches, blood vomiting, infertility, and women suffering a variety of gynecological disorders. The company has neither conducted a comprehensive and scientific epidemiological study, nor published the basis of its claims that no workers have ever been affected.

"Unilever has placed the burden of proof of impact on health on poor workers who are paid a meager $75 per month after 10 to 15 years of service," says Raja Mohammed, an ex-worker. "We have already proven that the company's bad housekeeping has exposed us to toxic mercury. Now, let Unilever prove that the exposure is not causing all these health problems we face. Only that would justify their claims that they are treating their Indian workers at par with their Dutch or English workforce," Mohammed says.

A conservative environmental audit conducted by Unilever's consultant indicates that hundreds of tons of mercury-bearing toxic wastes have been sold in the past to unsuspecting recyclers and end users in several southern states. Several tons of wastes, that the ex-workers claim are severely contaminated with mercury, were buried by the company in unlined pits at the factory site, bordering a forest sanctuary.

However, till date, the company has failed to fully disclose to the Pollution Control Board the raw data based on which the calculations for toxic mercury releases from their factory were calculated.

Greenpeace has demanded that aside from assessing and remediating the damage to environment and workers' health, Unilever should apologise for deceiving the public and endangering worker and community health and the environment with their careless handling of toxic mercury.

1. The Unilever factory was the largest mercury thermometer factory in the world. At the time that it was imported from the USA in 1983, the plant was already nearing the end of its life at its previous location in Watertown, New York.

2. In a report presented to the Pollution Control Board, Unilever assess the amount of mercury put out in the environment from its factory site at Kodaikanal at 539 kg, (with a statistical variance "of between 43 kg minimum and 1,075 kg maximum"). Another 284 kg of mercury has been dispersed through "off site disposal". It has produced 165 million thermometers with 125,000 kg of mercury, with a breakage rate documented at around 30-40%.

For more information:Navroz Mody, Toxics Campaigner - 0454240286