When even one gram of mercury is sufficient to poison a 25-acre lake, the latest study conducted by a Tamil Nadu based NGO, Community Environmental Monitoring has found high levels of mercury in samples of moss, lichens and sediments collected from the vicinity of the Uniliver’s closed mercury factory. The study confirms that the Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever factory which was forced to shut down for contaminating the region 14 years ago, continues to leach mercury into the air and leaking poisons into its surroundings including the ecologically sensitive Pambar Shola and the Pambar river. The samples collected from the region were analysed at the Department of Atomic Energy’s National Centre for Compositional Characterisation of Materials in Hyderabad.
The factory that produced 163 million thermometers using about 900 kg of mercury annually was established in 1983. In 2001, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) ordered the closure of the factory for violating environmental laws after it was detected that the factory had dumped 15 tonnes of broken thermometers containing mercury in a scrapyard. Several tonnes of mercury were discharged through air and water over the factory’s lifetime. Much of it was dispersed across the ecologically sensitive Pambar Shola Reserved Forest and also made its way into the Kodaikanal lake.
The new study has come up after the former employees, environmental activists and residents of Kodaikanal observed a Global Day of Protest on March 6th, 2015 to mark the anniversary of the closure of the Kodaikanal factory, all in an attempt to highlight the HUL’s labour, environmental and social practices in contravention of its stated commitment to sustainability and responsibility. Improper handling of mercury had lead to serious health problems including premature death of more than 30 former workers.
Some infants of the former factory workers were born with birth defects such as mental retardation and debilitating physical disabilities. Hundreds of former HUL workers and their families who are suffering from chronic illnesses are still battling for their lives and for remediation of the polluted soil and environment in this quiet and verdant part of Kodaikanal caused due to careless disposal of mercury.