23 August 2015

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The Deaths of workers mercury contamination story of Unilever Thermometer Factory

The Deaths of workers mercury contamination story of Unilever Thermometer Factory
Tamil Nadu
Kodaikanal—a popular hill station
Hindustan Unilever (HUL) is the Indian subsidiary of Unilever
Unilever is the British-Dutch multinational consumer goods company

Location of factory –
Located on St Mary’s road in Kodaikanal, this factory is surrounded by Pambar Shola—a thick bio-diverse forest that was designated a sanctuary By the Tamil Nadu government in 2003 and situated on a ridge that has rivers on either side.

Thermometer factory was set up in Kodaikanal in 1983, with second-hand equipment from the United States, where it was run by the cosmetics giant Chesebrough-Pond’s.

In USA – Laws are so strict that rich companies prefer to shift their units in developing countries where everything becomes legal for rich companies and rich people.

Why Ponds shifted to India I do not know about it.

Chesebrough-Pond’s relocated its thermometer plant to Kodaikanal as an export-oriented unit, and handed over the control of this unit to its subsidiary, Pond’s India.

In matters pertaining to the thermometer factory, Unilever likes to point out that it got the ownership of the factory only in 1998.

However, documents submitted to the Gol-appointed committee noted that Unilever got full financial control nearly a decade earlier, in 1989. Unilever’s website also mentions that that both Pond’s India and HUL had significant overlaps in specialty chemicals and export businesses, besides a
Common management pool since much before 1998.

Following its global acquisition of Chesebrough-Pond’s in 1986, Unilever acquired the factory in 1997.

As per media reports and Caravan For more than a decade now, social activists and non-governmental organizations have been attempting to spread awareness about the mercury contamination caused by Unilever’s plant in Kodaikanal

For the past nine years, Unilever has been fighting a case against the Ex-Mercury-Employees Welfare Association that was formed by tire factory’s former workers for exposing them to mercury and contaminating the ecologically sensitive area of Kodaikanal.

The primary component in the manufacturing of thermometers is mercury and everyone knows about side effects of that and what precautions company should take regarding that.

Side Effects of Mercury –
“It disturbs the nervous system, causes kidney damage or failure, skin problems, acute headaches, tremors, and teeth may fall.

It has now been established by committees—both independent and those appointed by the government—that this toxic substance was shoddily
Handled in the plant owned by Unilever.

According to data submitted to the Madras High Court, 45 employees, who worked for varying durations at the factory that was operational for 18 years, have died. Of these, 33 deaths have been attributed to diseases that are related to exposure to mercury. Among the 575 other factory workers who have been enlisted by the Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association, health issues such as respiratory diseases, headaches, shivering, giddiness, skin diseases, dental problems and infertility are common.

In 2001, the factory was shut down by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) for infringement of environmental laws; but as a Supreme
Court appointed monitoring committee noted in its report in in 2004, the “workers affected by mercury poisoning and an environment
Contaminated with mercury remain as living heritage” of the factory.

The monitoring committee concluded that HUL was liable for paying the
Entire cost of restoration and that the TNPCB should take an advance of Rs50 crore from the company to begin the process.

It also urged the company to set up a health clinic in Kodaikanal. HUL, which has an annual advertising budget of Rs 2200 crore. Never obliged.

A report by a committee appointed by the ministry of labor and employment in the Government of India in 2011, that consisted of medical and toxicology experts, committee visited the site in October 2011 and did a medical examination of the factory’s former workers. “There is a prima facie evidence,” the labor and employment ministry committee wrote in the conclusion of its report, “that not only the ex-workers of the HLL [HUL was known as Hindustan Lever Limited until 2007, when it changed its name to Hindustan Unilever Limited], Kodaikanal, but also their new born children have suffered on account of mercury exposure such as tremor , knee pain, loss of memory, loss of teeth, irregular menstrual period for women, infertility, skin problems, premature delivery of baby by pregnant women and children having ailments like mental retardation, deformity of organ, birth defect, like blue baby were also noticed.”

According to a story published in Frontline, it imported about five tonnes of mercury per year, made thermometers, and sent them back to the USA. The plant produced an estimated 165 million thermometers before it was closed down.

A study published in June 2015 by SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitors (SACEM), an initiative that trains villagers to fight pollution, measured the levels of mercury in samples from the plant and through the sediment collected from areas surrounding the factory. The study found that the lichen collected from the Levange path in Pambar Shola Reserve Forest contained 53 milligram of mercury per kilogram (mercury per kg). According to the report, mercury density over 1 mg per kg indicates that the atmosphere is highly contaminated.

A report titled Double Standards, prepared by TAAM in 2010, notes that “Transparency in TNPCB's proceedings on the Unilever matter ended in September 2005, when a Scientific Experts committee was formed ostensibly to approve the clean-up protocol. All subsequent meetings were behind closed doors. Reports were not shared, and decisions were taken without ever officially dissolving the two other oversight committees.”

For Unilever, the admission that its malpractices or whatever mistakes resulted in the death of over 30 of its employees, along with the contamination of a river and sanctuary, will affect company image world over, will effect share price and many other things.

Why companies in India never accept the guilt or admit the mistakes?
Reason is simple –
No fear of law
No good laws, laws are drafted to save the companies
No Punishments which will teach the lesson
Problem in India is that laws are framed and made so that companies can do anything and get free using the loopholes of the law.

Suggested Reading –

The Unending Fallout of Unilever’s Thermometer Factory in Kodaikanal

Reality views by sm –

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Tags – HUL Pollution Environment TN


Destination Infinity August 23, 2015  

I wonder why people still buy mercury-based thermometers when digital thermometers are now available. Let's abolish mercury by adopting digital technology.

Destination Infinity