Background: The HLL Mercury Thermometer Factory

In 1983…

…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. The factory was located in the verdant environment of Kodaikanal, adjacent to the beautiful Salcette church on St. Mary’s Road, and bordering the dense watershed forests of  Pambar Shola.

Kodaikanal...a beautiful city in the South of India
Kodaikanal…a beautiful city in the South of India

In 1986…

…Unilever’s subsidiary Hindustan Lever Limited acquired this thermometer plant as a part of Unilever’s acquisition of Chesebrough Pond’s.

The HUL Factory at Kodai
The HUL Factory at Kodai

Till 2001…

…the factory produced 163 million thermometers using about 900 kg of mercury annually. The thermometers were exported to the US and Europe. The toxic wastes were left to remain in Kodaikanal. The factory was wrongly registered as a “glass manufacturing unit” and allowed to come up in a residential area bordered by a watershed forest.

During its operations the company seems to have paid scant attention to workplace safety measures and rules of handling and disposal of hazardous material like mercury. As a result, more than a 1000 workers were exposed to mercury. Several workers have died prematurely as have children born to workers. Workers say the deaths were related to workplace exposure of mercury. Many more workers and their families are struggling to cope with the health effects and the consequent financial hardships.

Many ex-workers children born suffer from congenital deficiencies that workers believe were caused due to mercury's toxic effects. Several children have died.
Many ex-workers children born suffer from congenital deficiencies that workers believe were caused due to mercury’s toxic effects. Several children have died.

In March 2001…

…former workers and residents exposed a massive dump of Unilever’s mercury containing wastes in a scrapyard in Moonjikal, a crowded part of Kodaikanal town. The company was also found to have dumped mercury wastes in the forests behind its factory. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board shut down the plant due to these violations. But even today several thousand tons of mercury-contaminated wastes and soils are lying inside and around the factory leaching their deadly poisons into the surrounding environment.

Empty mercury bottles and mercury containing wastes were found dumped in the ecosensitive Pambar Shola forests behind the factory
Empty mercury bottles and mercury containing wastes were found dumped in the ecosensitive Pambar Shola forests behind the factory
Scrapyard where Mercury was found
Scrapyard where Mercury was found

In early 2003…

…the company was forced to export 289 tons of mercury-contaminated material to a mercury recycling facility in United States. No such facility capable of treating mercury wastes is available in India.

However, the struggle for adequate compensation for the workers and their families, clean-up of the residual mercury in the areas around the factory and making Unilever accept its liabilities and responsibilities continues.

Mercury Cleanup
Mercury Cleanup

Mercury & its impact on environment & health

Mercury is a highly toxic element that is found both naturally and as an introduced contaminant in the environment. Mercury in the air may settle into water bodies and can entire the food chain. It affects water quality. It can end up in streams, lakes, or estuaries, where it can be transformed to methyl mercury through microbial activity. Methyl mercury accumulates in fish and can affect human beings who consume the fish. Given the landscape of Kodaikanal, any contamination in the hills will be washed down to the plains.

Health effects

Chronic exposure to mercury in air and water can have the severe health effects. Inhaled mercury vapour is partly deposited in the brain, heart and kidneys, and can also cross the placental barrier to affect the unborn foetus among women. Some of the known health effects include

  • Gum and dental problems, mood swings and nervous disorders
  • Skin allergies, persistent and itchy rashes.
  • Birth defects in children born to exposed mothers – Mild to severe tremors
  • Memory loss, behavioural changes, loss of hearing
  • Kidney, heart and brain damage
The WHO also identifies exposure to mercury as a major public health concern. Dumping tons of mercury in Kodaikanal is a reckless act that exposes Hindustan Lever’s disrespect for the local environment and communities, and exposes the double standards of a multinational company which would never dare to dispose of mercury in such a manner in its home country.
The reports and studies section of the website contains a list of scientific literature on effects of mercury pollution and also studies pertaining to the thermometer factory in Kodaikanal.

Status of Hg in Factory

Studies of Hg in Factory and Outside

Understanding Unilever

Unilever is an Anglo-Dutch multinational corporation with businesses located around the world and has a revenue close to 50bn US$ (2013). With over 400 brands in food and refreshments, home care and personal care, the company is one of the largest media buyers in the world with a spending of almost 8bn US$ in 2010 on advertising. Unilever has a 67% controlling stake in its major subsidiary Hindustan Unilever (HUL), which has more than 45 active brands in India including beverages, cleaning agents, soaps and shampoos, personal care products and water purifiers.

Unilever at your local store
Unilever at your local store

Every home is likely to consume one or the other Unilever product; hence it is all the more essential to look at its questionable business practices.

Nothing ‘Fair and Lovely’ about Unilever

Through its advertising blitz, Unilever has always engaged in creating and reinforcing the racist myth that dark skin is ugly and inferior, having pimples or warts is socially degrading and having wrinkled skin and growing old is unacceptable. By promoting products like ‘Fair and lovely’, ‘Ponds Anti-Ageing Cream’, ‘Slimfast’ and ‘Pimple care’, Unilever not only makes us look at natural process of human body as an illness but also claims to have ‘miraculous cure’ to resist these natural processes. Unilever reinforces the patriarchal stereotypes about women and their bodies. Their advertisements speak less about their products and more about how women should look to gain socially acceptance. But how about the safety of their products? Publicly declaring the chemicals and toxins in their products or the processes is not a part of Unilever’s practices.

Some of the products promoted by Unilever
Some of the products promoted by Unilever

Fast Moving Consumer Hazards

A study found more than 40 toxic chemicals in the cosmetics manufactured and marketed by Unilever.

  • Environmental Working group, a voluntary organization found highly toxic substances like Sodium Borate, BHT, Quartz, etc. in Ponds cold cream, anti-ageing creams, Dove soap, Axe deodorants, Vaseline and other products of Unilever marketed in the western countries. These chemicals are known to cause irritation of skin and eyes, serious damage to internal organs apart from causing Cancer. http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/company/Unilever/
  • Detergents and soaps of Unilever (Rin, Vim, Hamam, Lux and Liril), in which Unilever has a 65% market share in India, have high levels of arsenic, according to a study by scientists from IIT Kanpur. All these soaps readily release arsenic into surface waters contaminating water bodies and sources. Over long duration, even at low levels, arsenic can cause cancer to skin, lungs, kidney and other organs. http://users.physics.harvard.edu/~wilson/arsenic/references/1913.pdf