By Heena Khan:
The Hindustan Unilever, an Indian subsidiary of the parent Anglo-Dutch company, Unilever was justifiably assailed by environmentalists and the employees of its Kodaikanal thermometer factory in 2001 for its incompetent and apathetic attitude towards workers health, many of whom lost their lives due to exposure to mercury, in excess of the protective standards allowed, for polluting the factory grounds and the encircling area with mercury and selling glass contaminated with mercury to a local scrap dealer heedless of the dangers of this act. When the factory was established the townspeople and the workers could not anticipate the health hazards in store for them. “Mercury,” Dr Linda Jones of Massey University, an expert in neurobehavioural assessment in mercury poisoning says, “is the third most toxic element in the world after arsenic and lead.” Exposure to mercury is accompanied with nervous system disorders, cardiovascular disorders, gastrointestinal problems which most of the workers complained of after working at the factory. The soils in and around the factory site were polluted with the Pambar shola forest, one of the 10 most important biodiversity plots in the world in danger. The Kodai Lake and the Pambar Lake had their water samples tested which exposed dangerously high quantities of mercury present in it affecting the aquatic life lethally.
What townspeople and environmentalists fear is that the factory’s mercury will convert into an even more dangerous form, methyl-mercury. This happens when mercury is worked on by bacteria in the environment, and when taken up by plants or the fish in water, moves into the food chain. Methyl-mercury poisoning made news headlines in the mid-1950s after pollution from a mercury-chloride factory entered the sea in Minamata in Japan. Hundreds of people were poisoned by eating contaminated fish caught in the area. Some wereÂ paralyzed, some went mad, some died. However even after nine years high quantities of mercury are still to be removed from the site. The company had been prosecuted at the request of the environmentalists and HLL Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association for causing irreparable damage to the environment as well as their health.
There is an urgent need that companies should also take up social responsibilities. Potential polluters should always monitor carefully environmental effects and consider the safety of their employees an essential duty.
It is also essential to point out that the factory in question was established in 1983 by Unilever, a USA based company, when new laws were introduced prohibiting the use of mercury beyond a certain amount. It took advantage of the lax laws in India and dumped its rubbish in the country. Needless, to say that apathy of our authorities and the Tamil Nadu government also became conspicuous when this controversy arose.
However, the HUL has brazenly denied charges of the detrimental impacts of its factory on the health of its workers or the surrounding environment. the process of clearing up of mercury has been only limited to the factory site and in 2010, even after nine years the company had been shut, is still incomplete.
Neo-imperialism and Globalization thus become important factors in the degradation of the environment as well.