Lever's Mercury Fever Rages On

Workers Demand Independent Health Assessment
Publisher Name: 
United Citizens Council of Kodaikanal, Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC), and Greenpeace India

For Immediate Release

Kodaikanal (March 7, 2002) -- Employees from the now-closed controversial Hindustan Lever Thermometer thermometer factory in Kodaikanal today condemned the company's efforts to stifle their right to demand an independent medical and health evaluation for the mercury contamination caused due to mercury exposure at the thermometer factory. The employees have joined hands with Kodaikanal community groups and environmental groups including the United Citizens Council of Kodaikanal, Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) and Greenpeace, to ensure that Hindustan Lever does not escape liability for environmental and health damage caused by its careless handling of mercury.

On March 7, 2001, residents of Kodaikanal, along with environmental ex-HLL workers groups, exposed HLL's 7.4 ton mercury waste dump stored illegally at a scrapyard in a crowded part of Kodaikanal. Since then, the company has been forced to end operations and clean up the scrap yard.

However, despite legitimate concerns regarding the health effects suffered by workers due to exposure to mercury in the workplace, the company has sought to dismiss the entire affair. Former HLL employees complain of a variety of health effects, including nervous problems and stomach disorders, some of which could be linked to the toxic effects of mercury. Under Indian Law, it is the Company's responsibility to prove that symptoms of health effects visibly apparent in the workers were caused by factors other than occupational exposure to toxic substances such as mercury.

Before compensating its workers who lost their jobs when the company was shut down due to environmental reasons, Hindustan Lever has extracted their signatures on a document that requires them to forfeit their right to laying any claims for occupational health effects. HLL claims that no occupational health effects exist. These claims are based on a shoddy study conducted by the Company's medical professional.

''We were told to sign something in English if we wanted our dues. We were always told the health question will be taken up later. We feel cheated,'' says Shanmugasundaram, a worker who was laid off. ''This AGREEMENT extracted from workers may look good on their annual report, but we are here to claim our dues with other former workers and the community for loss of quality of life, health effects and remediation.''

Hindustan Lever's responses to the mercury dumping controversy has been characterized by denials, cover-ups, untruths and a singular lack of transparency. After denying in March last year that any mercury waste had ever left the factory, and that the factory kept meticulous records of all mercury inventory, HLL admitted that one load of 5.3 tons of mercury-bearing waste was shipped out inadvertently to a scrapyard in Kodaikanal. Independent verification has placed the quantity of mercury wastes at the Kodaikanal scrapyard at 7.4 tons, although the company's website continues to misrepresent facts by claiming only 5.3 tons were dumped. Subsequently, the company admitted to having systematically shipped out to various parts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, over 98 tons of such wastes.

Despite requests by the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board, HLL has also refused to part with information on mercury use and disposal at the factory that would allow independent analysts to verify the claims made by the company's consultants that the mercury releases to the Kodaikanal environment pose no danger to residents' health or the environment.

''Mercury contamination in parts of the factory ground was 600 times permissible limits'', says Mr. Rajagopal, President of UCCK. ''Vapour carrying mercury did not stop at the factory fence, and we think the whole town, Pambar shola, and lake are contaminated. We are concerned as to how this affects a town that is dependent on boarding-schools and tourism.''

PHCC and Greenpeace maintain that between 20-40 tons of mercury may have been released into the environment since the plant started in '84. Occupational safety measures at factory were discontinued from the second year of operation, and the only warning given to workers regarding the hazardous nature of their work was to ''Wash hands before eating''.

''Lever's attempt to sweep the episode under greenwashed reports has only raised more mercury dust in Kodaikanal. Multinational corporations are more concerned about their profits than the health and environment of people in this country'', says Nevil Moncher, Secretary, PHCC. ''HLL can manipulate the situation only so far. The mercury in the environment of Kodai will not walk away, anyone is welcome to do tests and establish it for themselves.''

The workers along with the community call on the TNPCB to institute an independent and transparent appraisal of the mercury contamination to health and environment caused by the HLL factory. They also call on the TNPCB to force HLL to produce the original documentary records pertaining to import and use of mercury, and disposal of waste.

For further information, contact:

Nevil Moncher, PHCC. Tel: 04542 40157

Navroz Mody, Greenpeace. Tel: 04542 40286

Doris Rao, Greenpeace. Tel: 011 6962932


AMP Section Name:CorpWatch