Workers at a thermometer factory in the south Indian town of Kodaikanal are demanding compensation for illnesses and a better clean-up effort from Hindustan Unilever Ltd., multinational giant Unilever's Indian subsidiary. They say their illnesses are the result of the company unsafely dumping mercury waste from the factory. The factory was shut down in 2001, soon after complaints about the handling of waste began to surface and workers began to protest.
This week, Indian rapper Sofia Ashraf set the workers' demands to Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda":
Your cleanup was a sham
There's poison in the air
You ain't done
Kodaikanal won't step down til you make amends now
Unilever clean up your mess
“HUL has acted in an absolutely transparent and responsible manner since the issue was first brought to our notice in March 2001 by local NGOs. The company immediately closed the factory on its own and launched an investigation. There were no adverse impacts on the health of employees or the environment,” a spokesperson for Hindustan Unilever Ltd. told the Hindu newspaper.
But workers and their families say they're still suffering the consequences of dealing with mercury in the factory and the surrounding area. Workers protesting outside Hindustan Unilever Ltd.'s offices in Mumbai last month told New Indian Express that they had neurological and gynecological problems, and that their children had health issues ranging from heart problems to epilepsy. They claim that these problems are directly related to the mercury they were in contact with while working at the factory.
Since the factory shut down, several former workers have died of kidney failure, which could be linked to mercury poisoning, the Deccan Chronicle reports–but there is no official confirmation or count. Greenpeace claims the death toll from mercury exposure in the town is at around 27 workers and their children.
In a statement on their website, the company says internal and external health audits were conducted at the factory while it was open, and further health studies have been completed since it closed. They say the studies all found that there were no adverse health effects on employees during or after their time at the factory.
Unilever did not respond to a request for additional comment. The company has acknowledged, however, that contaminated scrap glass sold to a third party was unsafely disposed. From their statement:
Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL)1 , did not dump glass waste contaminated with mercury on land behind its factory. Scrap glass containing mercury had been sold to a scrap dealer about three kilometres away from the factory, in breach of our guidelines. HUL immediately closed the factory and launched an investigation.
The Hindu cites a study done in 2005 that found elevated levels of mercury in water, sediment, and fish in the local area, four years after the factory closed. The company's statement says they are waiting for approval from the state's Pollution Control Board to do soil remediation work.