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Toxic death slur on Lever

Mumbai, June 11: Ten persons died due to mercury seepage from Hindustan Lever’s thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, alleges a report released today by Greenpeace and the Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment.

The company denied the allegation, saying that “no deaths” had occurred.

Toxicologist Amit Nair released the report prepared by an inquiry panel, which he headed, and which had former Justice S.. Bhargava as a member, other than environment experts.

Close to 1,000 people employed in the plant have been permanently affected by the adverse effects of mercury, the report said.

Lever contested the observation, saying there was no impact on employees’ health.

The plant closed down in 2001, after what the two green groups called persistent complaints about pollution being caused by toxic substances spreading into the soil in surrounding areas at Kodaikanal, described as “one of the bio-diversity hotspots of the world’’.

A company statement said there was no “environmental damage to Kodaikanal”.

Lever spokesperson Shubhabrata Bhattacharya said the company “on its own” suspended all production in March 2001 and appointed URS Dames and Moore (now URS), leading international environment consultants and engineers, to make an independent investigation of the situation. Subsequently, it also appointed Tom van Teunenbroek, an internationally respected toxicology expert from the Netherlands.

Nair said none of the workers had been told about the ill effects of mercury or that they took it to their homes as it stuck to their hair, clothes and boots.

“Mercury is a highly neuro-toxic substance and in the USA .01 mg/kg in the soil is said to be dangerous but in the Kodaikanal plant it was 600-800 times more,’’ Nair said.

Mercury for the thermometers was being imported mainly from the US. By 2001, the plant had exported about 165 million pieces to Germany, the UK, Australia, Spain and Canada.

Lever said contrary to the report, it had taken all precautionary measures for its workers, given them protective gear and made them undergo medical tests.

The report mentions that 10 deaths occurred over a period of about six to eight years. It adds that in a preliminary assessment done by the Community Health Cell, Bangalore, 30 persons (25 males, five females) were found to be suffering from diverse conditions like infertility, renal failure, recurrent nausea and vomiting, loss of memory, bronchitis, depression, gastrointestinal tract disorders and skin problems.

Marimuthhu, who worked in the plant for five years before he quit due to physical inability, said: “I am ravaged. I started coughing and vomiting at work. But it is not just the workers, children are being born with deformities. There was mercury from our shoes and hair and clothes everywhere.’’

Lever dismissed the claims made by the green groups and said they were “running away from truth and obfuscating facts”.

Greenpeace said they were not only fighting for compensation for the affected people but also wanted an independent study on why and how the pollution happened. “We have to push for global standards of corporate accountability to be followed in India,” said Anantha Padmanabhan of Greenpeace.

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