Ruby Martine (80) walks to the graveyard every Wednesday to offer flowers at the grave of her son Christopher Martine, who worked at the Hindustan Lever Limited’s (HLL) erstwhile mercury plant in Kodaikanal. Christopher died in 1997 due to kidney failure at the age of 33 and his mother claims this was due to his exposure to mercury at the factory.
“My son made repeated requests to the management to shift him to the non-mercury section of the factory based on doctors’ advise as his health was degenerating. But the management turned a deaf ear,” claims Ruby.
Christopher is not the only HLL worker to have died or fallen ill with symptoms attributable to mercury poisoning. According to ex-employees of the factory, around 28 former employees of the factory died at an average age of 35 after developing symptoms that could be tied to mercury poisoning.
Many others are living testimonies of the toxic legacy left behind by the company. Kidney failures, neurological disorders and high rate of miscarriages are common. Worse, many children of the ex-workers have health problems.
Ex-workers say they were kept in the dark about the toxic nature of mercury. Close to 1,200 workers are estimated to have worked in the factory at various stages of its existence.
“Our situation is as worse as Bhopal disaster victims,” says Raja Mohammed, general secretary of the Ponds Hindustan Lever Limited Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association.