29 June, 2015. MUMBAI — Ex-workers and children affected by mercury pollution from Hindustan Unilever’s mercury thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, demonstrated outside the company’s AGM in Mumbai to tell shareholders about their company’s failure to clean up mercury pollution and compensate affected people. Meanwhile, shareholders concerned about the issue raised questions inside the meeting. The controversial thermometer factory was a second-hand unit that was imported from the United States in the 1980s when the US was cracking down on mercury pollution. The unit was shut down in March 2001 after it was found to have dumped tons of toxic mercury wastes in a scrapyard in Kodaikanal, and in a nearby forest.
Holding up placards and photographs of dead workers and children, the demonstrators said that Unilever’s inaction is harming the environment and public health. At least 45 workers and more than a dozen of their children have died so far; hundreds more are suffering from mercury-related diseases, they said. A study released last week found high levels of toxic mercury in vegetation and sediment collected from the vicinity of Unilever’s factory. The study confirms that the contaminated factory site is polluting the air and leaking poisons into its surroundings, including into the ecologically sensitive Pambar Shola and the Pambar River.
“We are living proof that Unilever is not the responsible company it claims to be,” said S.A. Mahindran, president of the Pond’s HLL ex-Mercury Thermometer Workers Welfare Association. “Unilever is a multibillion dollar company, and the cost of taking care of the environment and workers in Kodaikanal is insignificant compared to company revenues,” he said. He appealed to the shareholders to make their company address its liabilities.
The Kodaikanal delegation included two women who worked as cleaners inside the factory. Malarkodi, aged 46, has serious brain and gynecological problems, is hard of hearing and suffers from nervous tremors. Nirmala, also 46, has a 21 year old son who suffers from heart problems. Both women were involved in mopping up mercury spills from the factory floor. Bharatajyoti, another woman worker, has suffered six miscarriages. Her 20-year old daughter has stunted growth and suffers from frequent epileptic fits.
18-year old Vishal whose father worked in the factory has suffered from persistent headaches since he was a baby. Rajkumar, 16, who has birth defects was born to parents both of whom worked in the factory. He suffers from learning disability and attention deficit.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that harms the kidneys and causes brain damage, birth defects and nervous disorders.
Hindustan Unilever is a majority-owned subsidiary of the United Kingdom-based multinational Unilever. In April, supporters of the Kodaikanal campaign raised questions at the multinational’s AGM in the UK. At the time, the company said it was working to speedily resolve the issue.
For more information, contact: Shweta Narayan – 8056024315