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Mercury rising

Text by Nityanand Jayaraman. Photographs by Sudhanshu Malhotra

The beautiful hill station town of Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, is famous for its holiday resorts and weekend getaways.

Kodaikanal, in southern India, is considered a picture-perfect tourist destination. The silent hills covered with eucalyptus and pine trees... the sun setting behind them... calm lakes... misty mornings...

But amidst these beautiful surrounds and calm waters, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has found mercury levels (1.32 ug per cubic metre) higher than normal.

In 1983, HLL (Hindustan Lever Limited) started operations in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, to meet the growing demand for mercury thermometers, a product banned in most parts of the western world. Through the course of the plant's operation -- less than 20 years -- more than 1,000 permanent and casual workers are estimated to have worked in the factory.

While some jobs and certain sections of the assembly line had great potential for exposure to mercury, given the volatile nature of the substance and its ability to move through the air, occupational safety experts agree that no area within the factory could have been considered mercury-free.

Indeed, high levels of mercury, including in its deadly form (methyl mercury), were found in the waters and fish of lakes several kilometres away from the factory site, and well removed from human habitation. Mercury has a way of travelling long distances, settling in waterbodies, and building up to dangerous levels in aquatic fauna. Fish caught in Kodaikanal lake were found to contain dangerous levels of mercury, although not all the mercury in the lake can be attributed to HLL alone.

In 2001, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ordered the thermometer factory to shut after local people, environmental groups and ex-workers exposed the company's shoddy waste management practices. HLL was caught dumping tonnes of mercury-tainted toxic waste in sensitive watershed forests behind the factory and in a scrapyard in a crowded part of the city.

Thanks to a sensitive and intelligent chairperson at the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, the company was forced to export 289 tonnes of mercury waste to the US for final disposal. Several thousand tonnes of waste still remain at the site.

For a multinational company that claims to behave responsibly, HLL appears to have kept both the community and its workers in the dark about the hazards of mercury. The fact that the factory was set up in a residential area, abutting a protected forest, is proof that due disclosure of the dangers of mercury was inadequate. Also, the scrap merchant from whose yard HLL's waste was recovered claims he was given the toxic waste in the guise of glass scrap. Workers too say that, until the scandal was exposed, they had no idea that mercury was toxic.

Ignorant of its dangers, and with no advice regarding safe practices, workers say they routinely handled mercury without fear or worry.

Ignorance, in this case, led to anything but bliss. Many workers say they suffer from kidney, heart or brain damage, nervous disorders, bleeding gums, memory loss, chronic headaches, giddiness, shivering, and skin disorders. Children born to mercury-exposed parents are reportedly unhealthy; a few suffer birth defects. All these, locals say, are a result of exposure to mercury.

According to workers' estimates, around 18 workers, averaging about 32 years, have died from illnesses they suspect were caused by workplace exposure to mercury; eight children too have succumbed to what are suspected to be mercury-induced diseases.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can affect the central nervous system. Certain forms like methyl mercury can be lethal in very small doses. Exposure to mercury during sensitive phases in life -- during pregnancy or one's early years -- can have lasting effects.

(Nityanand Jayaraman is an independent journalist and researcher focusing on investigating corporate abuses of the environment and human rights. He is based in Chennai and is associated with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. Sudhanshu Malhotra is a New Delhi-based photojournalist. This article was researched under the fellowship programme of the National Foundation of India)

The famous Kodaikanal lake. According to a study done by the Department of Atomic Energy, levels of mercury found in fish in the lake are higher than normal.

 

Fish is still consumed from the lake even though it has been proved that it contains high levels of mercury.

 

Hindustan Lever Limited's mercury plant in Kodaikanal.

 

Ruby Martine (78), walks to the graveyard every Wednesday to put flowers on the grave of her son Christopher who worked at Hindustan Lever Limited's mercury plant from 1985 to 1991. Christopher wrote a letter to management asking that his department be changed as he was experiencing a number of health problems. But the company did not comply with his request and he was forced to leave his job. He died in February 1997 due to kidney failure.

 

J Sudhakar, 30, worked at the mercury plant for eight years. He was in a temporary position and worked as a machine operator for mercury distillation. Sudhakar suffers recurring headaches, bodyache, giddiness, ulcers; he also vomits blood. His three-year-old son Vijay has a hole in his heart. Doctors recommend surgery but Sudhakar doesn't have any money. Vijay lives with his grandparents as he has problems breathing at higher altitudes.

 

Paneer Selvaram died of kidney failure at the young age of 26. His urine mercury levels were 320mg/dl, as against a normal level of 15-40mg/dl. Paneer used to work as a gardener in the mercury thermometer factory.

 

S Sivaganam, 45, worked at the HLL mercury plant for around 18 years (1984-2001). He has a brain tumour and has been undergoing treatment for over 13 years. He spends about Rs 4,000 per month on treatment. At times he can be seen walking the streets talking to himself.

 

Vishal, 10, complains of continuous headaches. Doctors suggested an MRI scan but the family doesn't have the money. His sister Sindujo, 14, also has headaches and vomiting. Their father, Ramachandran, worked at Hindustan Lever Limited for 15 years.

 

Sahayam Nathan, 41, has been an ambulance driver for 10 years and has carried many people to the emergency ward at the government hospital in Madurai. Sahayam worked at the factory for a week before he quit due to family pressure. His father had heard about the Minamata disaster in Japan in the 1950s, where both humans and animals exhibited symptoms of heavy metal poisoning after consuming fish contaminated with mercury from an acetaldehyde manufacturing unit that was discharging waste mercury into Minamata bay.

 

A Lourduyesurajan, 51, worked at the HLL factory for 17 years, in a hazardous area. He now has heart problems along with various neurological complications.

 

Nitish's (9) mother Margaret, 32, worked at the mercury plant in the packing area and digital section from 1996 to 1998. She complains of constant headaches, failing eyesight, shivering, and giddiness. Nitish was born mentally challenged and attends a special school. The family lives in Prakasha Puram, around 7 km from Kodaikanal.

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009