Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mercury poisoning of HUL workers in Kodaikanal

Down to Earth has not responded with either a yes or a no to my article "Corporate irresponsibility and Government indifference" after writing to say that it was under consideration.

Well, I must have my say, so here goes:

The shocking public revelation by Kodaikanal citizens that mercury contaminated waste from the Hindustan Lever Ltd. (HLL) thermometer factory was being dumped at a local scrap yard served as the trigger for Government and corporate action to close the factory in 2001. The factory had been relocated from the US 18 years earlier, with the Government permitting its location at the edge of the ecologically sensitive Pambar Shola, the watershed for the Pambarai River, as a ‘non-polluting’ entity.

Kodaikanal citizens had become aware of the extreme hazards posed by mercury to health and environment through the work of Greenpeace and the Palani Hills Conservation Council.
Up till then, even the workers in the factory had no understanding of the dangers of working with mercury; neither the company nor the state pollution control or labour authorities had thought it fit to educate them.

The discovery of mercury laden waste with a local scrap dealer, however, proved to be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The report of the company-appointed environmental consultants, published in 2002, revealed severe contamination of the closed factory premises, with high levels of mercury in the soil (over 500 mg/kg in some samples). High mercury levels were detected even outside the factory, in soil in the path of runoff from the factory that merged with the Pambarai and in lichens in the path of air exhausted from contaminated areas of the factory.

Following the damning report, HLL agreed to carry out limited remediation of the site and the surrounding areas to bring down mercury contamination of the soil to 10 mg/kg. Environmental groups however felt that the company was not coming clean with its accounting of mercury and suspected that a much larger quantity of mercury was lost to the environment, or, disposed off along with waste glass to scrap dealers, than was acknowledged. Surprisingly, the pollution control agencies of the government did not press for a thorough independent investigation of mercury contamination of Kodaikanal or of the spread of mercury through waste sent for recycling to various parts of South India over the years.

Four years after the factory had closed down, a team of scientists belonging to Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and JNTU, Hyderabad, reported elevated mercury levels in the waters, sediment and fish of Kodai Lake, the central tourist attraction of Kodaikanal.

The increased awareness of mercury hazards impelled ex-workers of the factory to report a number of health problems they had been facing for years; their symptoms matched the known effects of exposure to mercury. Several of their children had birth defects and problems such as mental retardation, mutations and heart disorders. The turnover from the factory had been exceptionally high in all its history with workers citing health reasons for leaving. 10 ex-workers of average age 32 had reportedly succumbed to diseases of multiple organs including heart, lungs, kidney, brain & liver.

The environmental assessment of the factory site and surroundings showing severe mercury contamination, the unsafe practices in handling mercury reported by workers and evidenced in the casual disposal of mercury waste, and finally the testimony of the workers regarding their health problems, all pointed to moderate to severe exposure of workers to mercury.

HLL, however, refuted this. Immediately after closing the plant, it carried out an epidemiological survey of a section of workers, who had voluntarily responded to an advertisement. An occupational health study, based on the survey results and old factory health records, concluded that the workers had not been exposed to mercury above safe limits and that none of them were suffering from health problems that could be attributed to mercury exposure. A team of doctors of the Community Health Cell in Bangalore including specialists in occupational health who were first presented the study in late 2001, found it to be entirely unconvincing and undertaken in a hurry.

The state institutions – labour department, factory inspectorate and the pollution control board - did not consider it necessary to intervene on behalf of workers or to even organize an independent detailed study of their health. The burden of proving that they had been victims of mercury poisoning was left to the workers, unsuited as they were to the task with their limited means and the poor public health facilities they had to rely on.

The ex-workers have taken recourse to legal means, seeking compensation from Hindustan Lever for disabilities incurred by exposure to mercury and for lifelong medical assistance. The case is currently before the Madras High Court.

A Court appointed experts’ committee visited Kodaikanal in October, 2007 to determine if the health problems of the workers were due to mercury exposure. Five year old Michael Damien, suffering from a brain disorder, was presented before the committee, among others. One week later, Damien died. His mother Daisy had worked in the thermometer factory between 1996 and 1998.

A visit to the HLL ex-employees association office in Kodaikanal reveals row upon row of files, neatly stacked, containing the detailed health record of the workers and their children. Secretary of the association, Raja Mohammed, shows me Damien’s file recording his birth, death and the medical history of his short life. A small interruption from the street outside and he loses the thread of our conversation – Raja too suffers from memory loss, a known symptom of mercury exposure. Right across the road is the scrap yard that was found with mercury waste.

1 comment:

Chetan said...

Shame that government allows such companies to continue to to operate in the country. Union Carbide, POSCO, Vedanta, HUL..the list goes on. Thanks for the article, hope the victims receive justice soon.

Here's a photoessay that I just found while researching on this topic.