Coke stands accused of eco-poisoning

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  • Published 28.07.03

New Delhi, July 28: Coca-Cola India today found itself mired in a crisis after a BBC report said the sludge produced at its factory in Kerala’s Palakkad district contained dangerous chemicals that were polluting water supplies, the land and the food chain.

The sludge is the waste produced at the factory that the company provides free of cost to farmers in and around its plant at Plachimada village in Palakkad. The farmers use it as fertiliser.

The report on BBC’s Radio 4 programme Face the Facts said the sludge contained “dangerous levels of the known carcinogen cadmium”. It said sludge samples from the plant had been tested at the University of Exeter which found unacceptably high levels of toxins, including cadmium and lead.

Cadmium is a carcinogen that can cause kidney failure while exposure to lead — especially among children — can cause mental retardation, severe anaemia and is potentially fatal.

Coke, which has been swatting away similar allegations in the local media for almost a year, is trying hard to face down the BBC report by arguing that it had independent reports that proved the chemicals were within permissible levels.

A top Coke official said the company would send a team there to examine the accusation.

Face the Facts presenter John Waite visited the plant following complaints from villagers that water supplies were drying up because the Coke plant was a guzzler. “The results have devastating consequences for those living near the areas where this waste has been dumped and for the thousands who depend on crops produced in these fields,” said John Henry, a leading toxicology expert and a consultant at St Mary’s Hospital in London, who was interviewed by the BBC.

“What worries me about the levels found is how this might affect the pregnant women in this area. You would expect to see an increase in miscarriages, stillbirths and premature deliveries,” Henry said.

Scientist David Santillo, who was involved in the investigation, says the contamination has spread to the water supply and is well above the World Health Organisation (WHO) levels.

Coke officials said the plant was certified as conforming to the highest environment management standard — ISO 14001. “The plant at Palakkad is certified to ISO 14001 and is open to inspection by all regulatory and accredited monitoring agencies,” the company’s official spokesperson said.

ISO 14001 was first published in 1996 and specifies the actual requirements for an environmental management system.

Sunil Gupta, Coca-Cola India’s vice-president, public affairs and communications, said: “We will ensure our ongoing dialogue with local community leaders around the plant gets additional impetus and ensure their voices and concerns are better heard."

The official spokesperson said: “Independent studies from government agencies concerned with the environment and academic institutions have given our plant a clean bill of health. However, we take the concerns seriously and will continue to revalidate and recheck those existing studies with regulators and agencies and seek further independent inputs to this environmental audit process.”

Early this year, the local panchayat refused to renew the Coca-Cola licence, saying the plant was depleting ground water in the region. The licence was renewed after court intervention.

The issue has already taken on political overtones with the CPM launching an oust-Coke campaign in the region, threatening to intensify the agitation against Coke, rated the world’s largest brand for the third year running in the latest Interbrands-Businessweek survey of Best Global Brands.