Officials turn a blind eye as Kodaikanal is polluted by mercury waste

On a plateau in the Palani Hills, Kodaikanal nestles in the mist. It’s a place where eucalyptus trees tower and water spills down rocky mountain facades from cascading streams.

Kodai is truly atmospheric, but the town is not what it was. Much of the nearby forest has been felled and locals say that rainfall is not as plentiful now due to water draining from the mountains, which can no longer hold it with the trees gone. But something is much more fundamentally amiss in Kodai.

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. The findings led to a march to the factory gates by more than 400 residents from the area and marked the beginning of a story that is still ongoing 12 years later.

Air and water-borne mercury emissions have contaminated large parts 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.

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. Absenteeism and attrition increased over time.

Severe damage

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 has been contaminated.

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; an aberration of between 132 to 2,640 times. 

The Kodaikanal plant began production in 1983 after a mercury thermometer plant owned by Cheseborough Ponds Inc in Watertown, New York, closed and relocated to India under the ownership of Ponds India Ltd. In 1998, Ponds India merged with Hindustan Lever, the Unilever subsidiary, which imported the glass and the mercury primarily from the US and exported its thermometers to the US-based Faichney Medical Co. From there, the thermometers went to markets in Europe and Canada. The factory closed in 2001, but the legal saga still drags on today. The wider environment of course remains heavily contaminated and workers still require justice.

This type of criminality is all too common across the world - the shifting of production involving hazardous materials and methods from Western countries to cheap labour economies, resulting in the exploitation of foreign labour, in both financial and health terms and environmental destruction.

It happens because corporations cannot easily get away with such things in their home country. It also happens because a blind eye is turned towards corporate greed and criminality that all too often goes under the banner of ‘doing business’ by corporate executives and corrupt or weak-willed local officials, regardless of the impact on millions of ordinary citizen.

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