PRESS RELEASE: Unilever Trots Out Dubious Science to Protect its Health

Calling the clarifications posted by Hindustan Unilever (HUL) on its website a “rehashed” bunkum, activists working in support of ex-mercury workers and Kodaikanal residents have asked the company to offer something that would make people believe they are truly interested in resolving this issue.

The organisations have said that Unilever’s dilatory tactics in addressing environmental and worker liabilities is harming the environment and people’s lives. They have called on Unilever to offer an honourable settlement to workers, stop pushing the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to dilute clean-up standards. Unilever is spending more money to deny the existence of the problem than would be required to address the long-term health care needs of its workers. video and social media testimonies from workers are testimony to the lingering effects of mercury.

Public mobilization group Jhatkaa.org and the Chennai Solidarity Group said Unilever’s “clarification” reeks of insincerity and is factually wrong on many counts.

Point: Unilever claims that “Extensive studies have shown that there is no harm to workers. . .”.

Counterpoint: Unilever fails to mention the findings of a Government of India report that was submitted to the Madras High Court. The multidisciplinary team constituted by the Ministry of Labour & Employment included occupational health experts and occupational safety engineers. Unliker earlier reports that were based on questionable secondary furnished only by the company, the Government of India report was based on expert investigation of the factory premises, and clinical diagnosis of exposed workers and their family members. This report claims: “Medical examination of the workers conducted during the field visit on 4-6th October 2011 by the Committee by medical personnel has revealed typical symptoms of mercury poisoning as evidenced by the witnesseses presented during investigation.” (Page 121) Report of GoI.http://kodaimercury.org/final-report-of-the-goi-committee/

HUL points to several studies to conclude that workers have not been harmed. Each of these studies suffer from crippling defects as pointed out in italics below

  • A comprehensive medical examination conducted by a panel of doctors (2001) – Commissioned by HUL, and conducted by company staff doctors. Data of this study never been shared, even with workers.
  • A study by the Certifying Surgeon from the Inspectorate of Factories (2001): Page 116 of Report of GoI Committee notes that the “Certifying surgeon has no legal jurisdiction to conduct occupational  health surveillance study of the workers. . .The observations made by Certifying Surgeon are inconsistent.” http://kodaimercury.org/final-report-of-the-goi-committee/
  • A study by Dr P N Viswanathan of the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC) (2001): This was not a study, but an opinion. Not one worker was examined. Opinion was submitted solely on the basis of information provided by Unilever.
  • A study by Dr Tom van Teuenbroek of TNO, directed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) (2003): This was not a study, but an opinion. Not one worker was examined. Opinion was submitted solely on the basis of information provided by Unilever.
  • A study by the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC) (2005) as directed by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee: This was not a study, but an opinion. Not one worker was examined. Opinion was submitted solely on the basis of information provided by Unilever.

Point: Unilever claims that “Extensive studies have shown that there is no harm to. . .the environment.”

Counterpoint: On the contrary, even by Unilever consultant’s conservative estimates, at least 1.2 tonnes of mercury were discharged into the Pambar Shola watershed as airborne emissions. (Source: URS Dames & Moore, 2001).

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, an annual discharge of 1 gram of mercury into a 20 acre lake is sufficient to contaminate the waterbody to a point that makes the fish unhealthy for human consumption. (Source: “Mercury in the Environment: The Waste Connection.” 1995. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Michigan Department of Natural Resources & Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (grant from USEPA).

Results of analyses conducted by a Department of Atomic Energy laboratory in 2015 of mercury levels in sediment, moss and lichen collected from outside the factory revealed high levels of the toxin indicating that the factory was actively leaching poisons into the environment. http://kodaimercury.org/lichen-moss-study-2015/

Point: Unilever claims that it voluntarily shut down operations in March 2001.

Counterpoint: On 23 March, 2001, TNPCB issued an order via Proc No HWM/4280/TNPCB/2001-1 under Section 5 of Environment Protection Act for closure/stoppage of  power supply to the said unit. A copy of the closure notice is http://kodaimercury.org/tnpcb-closure-order/

Point: Unilever claims that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) invited NGOs for consultation prior to finalising clean up standards, and that the NGOs failed to participate.

Counterpoint: The Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on hazardous wastes had expressly directed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to set up a Local Area Environment Committee (LAEC) by inviting ex-workers representatives, residents and NGO representatives. This Committee was to be tasked with examining, critiquing and suggesting improvements in remediation, including in the process of setting standards and in overseeing the actual remediation. Of the five non-governmental represenatives in the LAEC, four people that were contacted said they received no invitation to any consultation from CPCB in December 2014. A senior official in TNPCB also admitted that no person from TNPCB attended that meeting.

Point: Unilever suggests that TNPCB is delaying the process by not issuing a work order, and that they are ready to clean up if the green signal is given.

Counterpoint: Unilever fails to point out that the reason for the delay is public opposition to its efforts to dilute the clean-up standards. In 2001, Unilever said it would clean up the soil to a high Dutch residential standard of 10 mg/kg of mercury in soil. Members of the Local Area Environment Committee pointed out that a residential standard was not acceptable as the factory site drained into and was ecologically contiguous with the Pambar Shola watershed forest. They also pointed out that Unilever’s 2001 proposal was 10 times laxer than the standards in UK, where the company is headquartered. Residual mercury from a substandard cleanup will leach into the Pambar River and find its way into fish in Vaigai River downstream.

Rather than incorporating this critique, and revising standards to protect the forests and water users in Periakulam and Madurai, Unilever is pushing TNPCB to dilute standards to 25 mg/kg – 25 times less stringent than what would be permissible in their home country of United Kingdom. The clean-up is being delayed because of Unilever’s double standards and insistence on applying a clean-up level that would be unacceptable in the United Kingdom.


For more information, visit: kodaimercury.org or
Rachita Taneja, Jhatkaa.org: 7760052603
Nityanand Jayaraman, Chennai Solidarity Group: 9444082401