Indian factory suspends operations amid allegations of mercury poisoning in tourist resort
Greenpeace has accused Unilever of negligence over mercury poisoning in a South Indian tourist resort, whilst the factory in question has suspended production.
The NGO accuses chemical giant Unilever of “double standards and shameful negligence for allowing its Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Lever, to dump several tonnes of highly toxic mercury waste” in the tourist resort of Kodaikanal and the surrounding protected nature reserve of Pambar Shola, in Tamilnadu, Southern India. Greenpeace says its activists and local residents cordoned off a dump site in the centre of Kodaikanal to protect people from the mercury wastes that had been “recklessly discarded in open or torn sacks by Hindustan Lever (HLL)”, which manufactures mercury thermometers for export. The waste is allegedly dumped as crushed or broken glass with poor local waste dealers, ignorant of mercury’s health hazards, or has been left outside the factory walls on the slopes leading to the Pambar Shola nature sanctuary.
Dumping mercury not only violates Indian law, says the NGO, but also Unilever’s own policy to “exercise the same concern for the environment wherever [it] operate[s],” “ensure the safety of its products and operations for the environment” and “provide whatever information and advice is necessary on the safe use and disposal of [its] products”. It says that workers at the factory are offered no protection from mercury spills and that several workers have allegedly complained of mercury-related health problems.
HLL says that the allegations have caused the company “enormous surprise and concern since such a possibility is remote given established systems and controls which are in place”. It says that to rule out any human error, however, it has decided to carry out an audit of the factory’s operations, including a comprehensive review of disposal of glass scrap, and in the meantime has suspended production at the factory.
Production will be resumed, HLL says, after it “has fully satisfied itself that the factory’s continued operation would not cause any hazard to the local environment…and that systems and procedures are fully in place to ensure that there is no risk associated with disposal of glass from the non-mercury area for further processing by industrial users”.
However, for Greenpeace and the Palni Hills Conservation Council, which administers the adjoining reserve, the proposals do not go far enough and, in addition they demand:
- a clean up of a local dump site situated beside a school;
- HLL to account for all past waste shipments to other parts of Tamil Nadu State;
- a full investigation to assess the damage to health among current and ex-workers, and compensation for them and;
- an acceptance of responsibility and financial liability for “the damage done” to workers, community and environment of Kodaikanal and the Palni Hills.
“Unilever claims to be concerned for the safety of its operations and the environment but this attitude clearly does not stretch to India,” said Navroz Mody, Greenpeace’s Toxics Campaigner in India and a resident of Kodaikanal said. “As the major shareholder it has a duty to ensure the
health and safety of the workers, residents and environment around this
A Unilever spokesperson in the UK told edie that the company had issued no public comment on the allegations.
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