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Environmental Activist Shweta Narayan Highlights Mercury Poisoning In Kodaikanal, India

Kavita Sukerkar

Environmental Activist Shweta Narayan highlights Mercury Poisoning in Kodaikanal, India
Mercury contamination at Unilever factory site not yet cleaned up; people suffering for 30 years

Shweta Narayan, environmental justice activist, and coordinator of the Community Environmental Monitoring (CEM) program for The Other Media in Tamil Nadu, India, spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on March 11. Her talk, titled “Mercury in the Mist,” was attended by around 30 people from Cambridge and surrounding communities. It focused on the mercury contamination caused by the now-disbanded thermometer factory of Anglo-Dutch multinational company Unilever in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, and the plight of several of the workers from mercury exposure.

Narayan set the stage of her talk by outlining the establishment of the mercury thermometer producing plant in Kodaikanal. In 1983, the US based company, Ponds Ltd, relocated its thermometer factory from Watertown, New York to Kodaikanal. 5 years later, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) bought the company. HUL imported the glass and mercury it required from the United States and the thermometers produced were exported outside India.

Narayan explained that during the operation of the factory, HUL did not educate its workers on the hazards of mercury exposure, which include neurological disorders, memory problems, skin discoloration, kidney failure, and death.  In fact, many workers would frequently be coerced into cleaning up mercury spillage with their bare hands and were even told to collect and return any mercury that might have settled in their clothes and hair at the end of the day.

As part of her talk, Narayan screened a short documentary film called “Mercury in the Mist” made by Amudhan R.P. The film featured interviews with many of the workers and families of deceased workers. Some workers recounted how they sought medical treatment (administered by company-employed doctors) for their symptoms but were not given any certificates in writing to confirm that they were poisoned due to mercury, thus leaving no paper trail.

In 2001, residents of Kodaikanal discovered an open dumpsite near a school containing over 7 tonnes of mercury-laced crushed glass in torn sacks. A similar dump was uncovered in a scrapyard not far away from the company site, where HUL had been selling its scrap mercury-poisoned glass. “These discoveries led to workers talking to each other and connecting the dots”, said Narayan. They concluded that the common symptoms that they had experienced since working at HUL had to be attributed to mercury poisoning.  

On March 7 that year, over 400 community members marched in protest demanding clean up and the pressure led to the immediate shutdown of the factory. In 2006, a case was filed against HUL with the Chennai High Court to demand medical rehabilitation and compensation for loss of lives. Scientific agencies such as National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) that were appointed by the Supreme Court Monitoring committee to conduct an investigation were allegedly also hired as paid consultants by HUL. They, along with the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, allegedly colluded with HUL to deny the link between workers’ symptoms and mercury exposure and even to downgrade cleanup standards. Narayan has been providing technical and legal advice on this case for over 7 years now. However, efforts to provide redress to the workers and to clean up the contaminated forests and water have stagnated recently.

Narayan urged everyone to join in the fight and to put pressure on Unilever. “We cannot have another Bhopal on our hands”, she said. “Unilever is practicing environmental racism. It’s high time we put an end to it.” In the engaging Q&A session that followed, the audience asked questions and offered their suggestions on moving the campaign against Unilever forward. Among them, Geeta Aiyer, a local community activist and sustainable investment manager, reminded the audience of the power of the consumer.  “Many consumers are probably unaware that they are even using Unilever products” she said. “The first step is perhaps just to make a list of these brands and to urge consumers not to buy them”.

For more background on this issue, visit kodaimercury.org.  This talk was sponsored by the MIT and Boston chapters of Association for India’s Development (AID). See www.aidboston.org  for more information on AID.

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