Unilever’s toxic legacy in Tamil Nadu

From ToxicLeaks

Unilever corporation background[edit | edit source]

The Unilever company boasts a proud history dating back to late-19th century London, and the first soap products introduced by the Lever brothers in Victorian England. In its first decades, the company built a multinational presence, with subsidiaries across Europe and the United States, and significant brand and land holdings on the African continent. A 1929 merger agreement led to the Unilever name, and the evolving global company owns and produces some 400 of the world’s most-recognized brands today. Unilever brands, including Dove soap and Indonesia’s SariWangi tea, are used by some 2.5 billion people each day, Unilever says; that translates to about one of every three people on earth at any given time. In May 2017, the company announced expansion in South America with the acquisition of Quala brands.

Despite the success of the USD$143.9 billion company, it has yet to clean up a manufacturing site in the Tamil Nadu region of India, where the Hindustan Unilever subsidiary operates. That’s where Unilever made thermometers for its home health care line of products, and it’s where concerned environmental activists discovered improper mercury disposal in 2001. The mercury contamination led to compromised worker health and environmental damage, but in 2017 the Tamil Nadu site still awaits soil remediation.

Indian journalists have said that the scope of Unilever’s impact at Kodaikanal may be second only to that of the nation’s 1984 Bhopal disaster, a now decades-long nightmare that looms large in India’s culture.

Activists expose mercury contamination[edit | edit source]

The Kodaikanal factory site was chosen in 1983, when Unilever moved thermometer manufacturing operations to India’s Tamil Nadu region in response to tighter environmental controls on mercury in the United States. It was attractive in part because at its mountainous elevation, mercury was believed safer to handle. Thermometer production continued at Hindustan Unilever until 2001, when the factory was closed down after plant workers and activists led by Nityanand Jayaraman conducted a three-month inquiry and, in March 2001, exposed chronic improper handling and storage of the mercury waste.

Jayaraman and his team, working with Greenpeace, made public the evidence of seven tons of piled-up broken thermometers hidden in the midst of a tourist town of more than 36,000 residents, as well as mercury-contaminated waste strewn on lands adjacent to the watershed forests of Pambar Shola.

All told, the factory produced some 163 million thermometers during its operational years, using 900 kilograms of mercury each year – all at a location that activists say was registered as a glass factory and where the mercury and its handling went undetected. Unilever and its Hindustan operations deny that the company disposed of the mercury waste improperly because it had been sold to a scrap dealer in the Moonjikal neighborhood, where the toxic waste was found three kilometers away. The company also cites independent investigations proving there were no adverse employee health or environmental impacts, but environmental advocates, workers and community members dispute company claims.

Health and environmental impacts[edit | edit source]

Mercury exposure has catastrophic consequences for human health that have been known since the 1950s, with toxic impacts that range from symptoms of numbness and dizziness, to fatal poisoning. Illnesses related to mercury exposure are sometimes called Minamata disease, after the Japanese town where 900 fatalities and widespread illness were first linked to toxic industrial waste found in the water.

The United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty for managing mercury pollution that goes into effect in August 2017, takes its name from the same town. The international IPEN network looked to the Unilever facility in Tamil Nadu as a case study when developing guidelines for Minamata Convention countries. Their research finds a litany of tragic contamination consequences that contradict the official Unilever response and corroborate what workers and the community say.

Mercury “hotspots” at the site itself, caused by thermometer-factory work practices, contaminated on-site soils as well as a stream that passes through. Escaped mercury emissions have poisoned the soil away from the site. Nearby Kodai Lake, a tourist attraction to the north, was contaminated as evidenced by water chemistry composition, and sediment samples showing a 6 percent mercury concentration.

Samples from fish in Kodai Lake found 120 – 290 micrograms/kg HgT (total mercury), with research scientists concluding the lake was contaminated, in opposition to a United Research Services (now AECOM) report cited by Unilever that said otherwise. The IPEN report data also included air samples outside of the thermometer manufacturing site with 1.32 micrograms/m3 mercury concentrations considered “significantly elevated.” High mercury concentrations were found in lichen and mosses growing at the site, with readings of 0.2 micrograms/kg as far away as 20 kilometers from Unilever, raising concern for the impact of mercury contamination to the lake, forests and wildlife preserve.

Occupational safety standards in Tamil Nadu put a 0.05 mg/m3 limit for work environment exposure. The greatest alarm over the mercury releases is caused by its impact to human health. The World Health Organization identifies mercury poisoning as a Top 10 chemical concern for public health, and local activists say the Kodaikanal exposures begin with more than 1,000 workers who were exposed; at least 45 premature deaths of employees in their 20s and 30s are believed linked to the mercury exposure. Other illnesses are too, including a number of congenital defects in children born to Unilever workers.

Unilever’s 2016 settlement[edit | edit source]

At the time the mercury disposal practices were exposed, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) ordered the Unilever plant at Kodaikanal shut down for investigation. The company never reopened the plant, but said plans to close the facility had already been in motion since January 2001.

Unilever steadfastly denied responsibility for mercury contamination at Kodaikanal, apart from minimal soil contamination at the thermometer factory site. Its corporate documents list government agencies and independent research studies that support their denial of any adverse health consequences related to mercury toxicity. They note that a 2006 legal challenge in India’s Madras High Court, requesting new health evaluations for former employees, was denied the following year after a review by an expert panel established by the court. Yet in 2004, a court-appointed committee said the “workers affected by mercury poisoning and an environment contaminated with mercury remain as living heritage.” A 2011 report for India’s Ministry of Labour & Employment, one that runs 239 pages and includes former worker and witness statements, found that not only workers but their children suffered ill health effects.

Unilever contested that report in 2012 but ultimately, 15 years after the mercury contamination was first revealed, agreed in March 2016 to pay undisclosed settlement amounts with 591 former workers. The company statement confirmed the decision was made “on humanitarian grounds” to end the long legal battle, and said funds will support skills enhancement and livelihood enhancement projects.

Ongoing battle over remediation at Kodaikanal[edit | edit source]

Yet in 2017, the mercury contamination in Kodaikanal isn’t close to being cleaned up. Incremental efforts to do so have, over the years, included the initial removal of 7.4 tons of mercury-tainted glass after the dump site was revealed in 2001. Five silt traps also were installed in 2001 to prevent water and soil runoff from the thermometer factory site and prevent it from reaching the Pambar Shola ecosystem, although the company admits to 370 kilograms of mercury, some in the air, that did reach the forests. In 2003, some of the contaminated material was shipped to the United States for recovery and disposal.

Hindustan Unilever planned to begin soil remediation in 2017, using a 20 mg/kg concentration threshold it says will protect the environment while making soils safe for cultivating crops and for children to play.

“There is no single clean up standard (or "remediation standard”) for cleaning mercury-contaminated sites in India or any other country,” the Unilever statement said. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has approved that standard for a three-month remediation trial, but it follows years of debate over how aggressive the mercury cleanup needs to be. Community activists and environmental NGOs have pressed for higher cleanup standards, including Canadian and Dutch models; the company proposed the latter itself at the outset of Kodaikanal’s sad toxic saga, but abandoned it as too costly and complicated. Meanwhile, water and soil samples taken in 2015 demonstrate that the mercury contamination from the long-closed thermometer factory continues, and residents still wait for Kodaikanal to be safe again.