Paliya tribes living in and around Kodaikanal are allegedly facing health problems attributable to mercury pollution, according to an NGO working with tribals in the region. However, no study has been conducted till date to validate these claims as the tribal group continues to stay away from modern healthcare facilities.
“About 20-25 per cent of the Paliya tribals living in Adaloor, Bandrimalai, Poolathurand Agamalai are facing health issues like kidney failure, miscarriages and impotency, which we fear is due to mercury pollution from the factory,” says Michael, founder of Society for Integrated Development of Tribals. Micheal, who claims to have been working with the tribals in the region for more than three decades, says these health issues manifested only since the last five years.
Most tribes in the region depend on collecting and trading non-forest produce for a living and Paliya tribes in specific collect lichens and sell them to shops, which use them in preparing of garam masala. “Various studies have established that lichens around Kodaikanal contain a high level of mercury. Our finger of suspicion points towards lichens,” says Michael.
A study done in October 2005 by experts from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) found mercury in moss and lichen collected from 12 different locations. The levels varied from a high of 8 mg/kg around the factory to about 0.2 mg/kg in samples collected from near a lake 20 km from the factory.
“Though we have not yet been able to establish a scientific connect, if lichens are the real cause, the mercury may have an adverse effect on all consumers of garam masala,” he warned.
Though the fears are not unfounded, experts say the conditions seen in tribals may also be due to other external or socio-economic factors like poverty and poor working and living conditions.
The DAE study had also found high levels of elemental and methyl mercury in the waters and fish in lakes and streams around Kodaikanal.