Kodaikanal Won't: Chennai-Born Rapper Takes On Unilever For Mercury Contamination
31 July, 2015
Written by Chennai-born rapper Sofia Ashraf and set to Nicki Minaj's “Anaconda,” the video takes an undisguised jab at Unilever for its failure to clean up mercury contamination or compensate workers affected by its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal.
In 2001, residents of Kodaikanal uncovered a dumpsite with toxic mercury waste from a thermometer factory run by Unilever's Indian subsidiary Hindustan Lever. The 7.4 ton stockpile of crushed mercury-containing glass was found in sacks spilling onto the ground in a scrap yard. Unilever had also dumped mercury containing waste in part of the Shola forests within the company's property. Sholas are hallowed forests because of their high biodiversity and role as watersheds. The findings led to a march to the factory gates by more than 400 residents from the area and marked the beginning of a saga that is still ongoing 12 years later.
The factory closed in 2001 after 18 years of operation.
The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ordered the company to collect the mercury containing glass waste dumped in scrap yards and forests and send it back to the United States for recycling and disposal. Consequently, the company collected and sent 289 tons of waste material to a recycling facility in Pennsylvania in May 2003
In September 2004, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee ordered the company to clean the contaminated site and surrounding areas to “pristine levels”. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board subsequently gave the company permission to dispose of equipment in the contaminated mercury factory with scrap dealers .
However, air and water-borne mercury emissions have contaminated large areas of Kodaikanal and surrounding areas. A study conducted by the Department of Atomic Energy confirmed that Kodaikanal lake has been contaminated by mercury emissions. The causes were reported to be dispersal of elemental mercury to the atmosphere from improper storage and dispersal to water from surface effluents from the factory.
Moss samples collected from trees surrounding the Berijam Lake, located 20 km from the factory, were also tested. Mercury levels were in the range of 0.2 µg/kg, while in Kodaikanal lake the lichen and moss levels were 7.9 µg/kg and 8.3 µg/kg, respectively. Fish samples from Kodaikanal lake also showed mercury levels in the range of 120 to 290 mg/kg.
An environmental audit commissioned by the company admitted that the estimated offsite discharge to the Pambar Shola forests is approximately 300 kg. Additionally, 70 kg were released through airborne emissions.
Just one gram of mercury deposited annually in a lake can, in the long term, contaminate a lake spread over 25 acres to the extent that fish from the lake are rendered unfit for human consumption. Plant workers and Greenpeace India maintain that the company's figures of mercury discharges to the environment are grossly underestimated.
Hindustan Lever has been accused of considerable legal maneuvering to avoid paying compensation to the ex-workers and their families, many of whom died or became physically handicapped as a result of mercury poisoning.
Responding to claims that mercury exposure in the workplace may have damaged workers' health, the company conducted a medical check-up in March 2001. It concluded that no workers in the factory suffer from any illness which could be attributed to mercury exposure.
However, a preliminary health survey conducted by two occupational and community health specialists from Bangalore-based Community Health Cell on 30 workers and ex-workers found many people had gum and skin allergy related problems which appeared to be due to exposure to mercury.
More than 1,100 workers worked in the factory during its life-time. From their testimonies, workers appeared to know nothing about the dangers of working with mercury. There was no safety equipment for the workers and neither were there proper facilities to bathe clean after working in the factory. They were not provided with face masks to reduce their intake of mercury in the air and changed uniforms only once every three to four days. Contract workers worked with their bare hands to clean up the mercury. The workers also took home on them particles of mercury that affected the members of their family, including their children.
Workers began to suffer headaches, skin rashes and spinal problems. With no knowledge about mercury, the workers failed to link their illnesses to it. Absenteeism and attrition increased over time.
Once released into the environment, Mercury can cause severe damage to kidney, liver and other vital organs. Exposure on a regular basis can cause skin diseases and damage the eyes. Mercury also affects the nervous system and organic compounds of mercury can cause reproductive disorders and birth defects.
Some 18 ex-workers have died due to illness that can be traced to exposure to mercury. Nine children of former workers have died. Many more workers and their children continue to suffer the effects of mercury poisoning. Miscarriages and children born with congenital ailments and severe mental and physical disorders continue to be reported among the workers and their families.
The fish in Kodaikanal lake are contaminated, and this has caused the loss of livelihood for many people. Water as far as Madurai, a major city about 130kms from Kodaikanal, has been contaminated. That’s no surprise because the contaminated water from the mountains was bound to flow onto the plains below.
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 metre against the normal level of 0.5-10 nanogram per cubic metre; effectively an aberration of between 132 to 2,640 times.
Hanging In The Mist: Mercury Contamination Kodaikanal
By Colin Todhunter
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