Greenpeace activists and concerned residents cordoned off a contaminated dump site in the centre of Kodaikanal to protect people from the mercury wastes that have been recklessly discarded in open or torn sacks by Hindustan Lever which manufactures mercury thermometers for export, mainly to the United States. According to Hindustan Lever, from there, the thermometers are sold to Germany, UK, Spain, USA, Australia and Canada. The factory, set up in 1977, was second-hand plant imported from the United States, after the US factory was shutdown for unknown reasons.
Mercury is highly poisonous and exposure to even a small amount through air, water or skin, exerts severe effects on the central nervous system (brain) and kidneys. Foetuses and young children are particularly at risk of poisoning by mercury.
Unilever states (2) that its policy is to "exercise the same concern for the environment wherever [it] operate[s]", "ensure the safety of its products and operations for the environment" and "provide whatever information and advice is necessary on the safe use and disposal of [its] products". Yet workers at the Indian factory are offered no protection from the mercury spills and several workers have complained of health problems which, they allege, is caused by their exposure to mercury in the workplace.
Navroz Mody, Greenpeace's Toxics Campaigner in India and a long-time resident of Kodaikanal said: "Unilever claims to be concerned for the safety of its operations and the environment but this attitude clearly does not stretch to India. As the major shareholder (1), it has a duty to ensure the health and safety of the workers, residents and environment around this plant. Unilever's customers world-wide should bring immediate pressure to bear to put a stop to this negligent operation and dangerous trade."
Today, thermometer waste contaminated with mercury is dumped as crushed or broken glass with unsuspecting recycling merchants. Greenpeace and the Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) also warned that contaminated waste has been dumped behind the factory wall onto the slopes leading to Pambar Shola, an important and protected nature sanctuary.
Mody continued, "Unilever is taking advantage of lax environmental controls in a developing country. It would not be tolerated outside their factories or in their nature reserves in rich nations, so why should we accept their double standards and their pollution. Unilever must take responsibility for this negligence, stop production and make an immediate assessment of the damage it's caused to both current and ex-workers as well as the local environment."
Notes to Editors:
- Unilever owns a 51% share of Hindustan Lever.
- Dumping mercury contaminated wastes violates Indian law under the Hazardous Waste Rules (Management and Handling), 1989.
- It stops the use of mercury in the Hindustan Lever Thermometer factory immediately and ensures that the livelihoods of workers are not jeopardised by the company's negligent behaviour;
- Conducts a full investigation into the extent and nature of mercury pollution caused by the factory within its premises, at the scrap yard and in the surrounding environment.
- 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 must account for all past waste shipments to other parts of Tamilnadu.
- Conduct a full investigation to assess the damage to health among Lever's current and ex-workers, and compensate them for the loss of quality of life;
- Accept responsibility and financial liability for the damage done to workers, community and environment of Kodaikanal and the Palni Hills.