Mercury Affected Children From Kodaikanal Urge HLL Shareholders
to Demand Responsibility Along with Profits from the Company
Mumbai, 17 May 2007 : Ex Workers and their children from the Hindustan Lever (HLL) mercury thermometer factory in Kodaikanal today addressed a press conference urging the shareholders of HLL to raise the issues of mercury contamination and long term medical remediation of the victims in Kodaikanal at the HLL Annual General Meeting (AGM). Eleven ex-workers exposed to toxic mercury (representing about 500 affected workers) highlighted the various health problems like neurological disorders, tremors, bleeding gums, heart disorders, renal malfunctions and high levels of abortions among women during their work at the thermometer factory.
To highlight the intensity of the problem, 5 children born to the ex-workers were also present; these children suffer from various known mercury induced illnesses such as brain disorders, heart disorders and congenital deformities. Appealing to the shareholders of HLL, the ex-workers said, “Shareholders should not only be interested in the profits but also demand responsibility from the company. Kodaikanal is a liability that the company cannot escape from and shareholders should ensure that justice is done to the victims of HLL here.”
Among the five children present, 12 year old Prem Anand suffers from brain disorder, 7 year old Yesudas Carmel suffers from heart disorder and 5 year old Raj Kumar and 6 year old twins Pradeesh and Prasanna suffer from congenital deformities. Two children suffering from mercury related illnesses have also died. Ex-workers also report that about 20 workers of average age of 35 years have died so far due to the exposure to mercury after working at the factory.
In March 2001, former workers and irate community residents exposed a massive dump of mercury containing wastes in a scrapyard in Moonjikal, a crowded part of Kodaikanal town. Even now, several thousand tons of mercury-contaminated wastes are lying inside and around the factory. In early 2003, the company was forced by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to export 289 tonnes of mercury-contaminated material a mercury recycling facility in United States. No such facility capable of treating mercury wastes is available in India.
Amidst tightening environmental regulation in the US due to mercury’s toxic effects, Chesebrough Pond’s Inc. exported its decades-old mercury thermometer factory to India from the US in 1983. The factory was later acquired by HLL, a subsidiary of European MNC Unilever. The factory was fraudulently registered as a “glass manufacturing unit” to evade environmental and health safety controls required of a mercury using facility, (a clear indication of the corruption the company resorts to). The factory produced 165 million thermometers between 1984-’01 for export mostly to the US and EU. During its operations HLL dumped tons of mercury into the pristine atmosphere of Kodaikanal. The Department of Atomic Energy’s Report shows that even 2 years after the factory was closed, there was 7 times more mercury in the air of Kodaikanal than considered safe for exposure of general populations in the European Union.
Mercury is a known neurotoxin. I ts effects are most severe in the central nervous system. Mercury can cause brain damage in developing fetuses and mild tremors, mental disorders, motor and emotional disturbances, even death, in exposed adults. Even the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes (SCMC) has taken a strict note of the existing mercury contamination in an around the HLL factory site and fixing the liability on HLL ordered the company to ” reinstate/restore damaged/destroyed elements of the environment “. The SCMC also recommended that HLL should pay an advance of 50 crores towards remediation and independent of this should also set up a health clinic and a non polluting employment center for the health and economic rehabilitation of the affected workers.
Profits from Poison
HLL’s corruption and manipulation of the scientific and regulatory mechanisms at State and central levels to evade responsibility is an indication of the “extaconstitutional” power wielded by multinational corporations over the Indian government to allow them to carry on their business of profiting from poison.
Having suffered from HLL’s lack of understanding of a well known toxin such as mercury, we sought information on toxins in household products such as soaps and detergents, shampoos and sprays manufactured by HLL. Concerns for toxics in HLL’s products range from use of cheap industrial cleansers like SLS and SLES on shampoos, or the presence of pthalates or parabens which are known to be carcinogenic, endocrine disruptors, damage the reproductive system, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) for perfumes in the product which can cause damages to practically every organ in the body. Children and women have been found to be particularly vulnerable to these toxics.
We have found that besides the presence of a vast range of toxic chemicals in their consumer products, HLL is perhaps the single largest single contributor to heavy metal poisoning in India through the arsenic content of its soaps, detergents, shampoos. The dispersed nature of detergents and soaps ensures that HLL’s arsenic and other toxics reach every waste stream from village wells to surface waterbodies and underground aquifers where it accumulates and resurfaces to poison the water source.
Double standards are reflected in both instances: in the EU HLL could not deny impacts from mercury nor could they load their consumer products with toxics but in the case of their products in India, they flout the most basic concerns for consumer or environmental safety, in order to make their profits.
The Hindustan Lever Employees Union, (HLEU), are here today to express their solidarity with the mercury affected workers and families from Kodaikanal. The HLEU confirms that safety, labour and human rights violations are standard operating procedure at HLL plants which seek to maximize profit at the cost of labour, environment and consumers.
We urge women’s organizations, children’s rights groups, human and labour rights organizations to join us to demand that:
- HLL own up to its liabilities for the mercury contamination in Kodaikanal and its impact on workers, their families and residents of Kodaikanal.
- HLL cleanup its toxic factory site in Kodaikanal in a transparent operation to mitigate damage to a unique forest and lake ecosystem.
- HLL publicly declare the toxics in each of their Consumer products, (manufactured or distributed) as they are required to under EU regulation, whether or not HLL thinks they pose a danger.