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Hindustan Lever Admits to Dumping of Mercury- containing Wastes

Delhi, 22 March, 2001: Hindustan Lever, which had earlier denied charges leveled by citizen groups in Kodaikanal against its thermometer factory of illegal mercury waste dumping, has admitted that the mercury-containing glass wastes, now ascertained to be 5.3 tonnes, lying at the Munjikal scrapyard in Kodaikanal originated from their factory. In a letter to Greenpeace India, the company has also agreed to track and retrieve other such shipments which have been sent to various locations outside the factory, and to having cleared the wastes that were found to be dumped in the watershed forests behind the factory wall.

The Tamilnadu Alliance Against Mercury, while welcoming these admissions is irked that Hindustan Lever has not yet apologized to the community, and is downplaying the extent of their bad practices evident from the fact that several shipments of potentially-mercury contaminated wastes sent over the last 17 years of operation may now be untraceable and spread out over various parts of Tamilnadu and beyond.

"HLL's admission of their dumping is a good first step, but discussions with the company cannot begin in earnest, until the company offers a public apology to the community,” said Navroz Mody, TAAM member and Greenpeace India’s campaign director. “HLL should realize that this matter goes beyond mere financial compensation and remediation which can never fully make up for the damage to the quality of life and environment. More importantly, they should realize that if such dumps were found in London or Amsterdam, where Unilever is based, the company would be in deep trouble.”

Hindustan Lever has said it has employed an international consultant, Dames & Moore to provide them with advice on assessing and remediating the environmental consequences of their waste dumping. The Indian representatives of this company have submitted a protocol to clear the 5.23 tonnes of mercury contaminated wastes lying in Munjikal.

At a press conference held in Chennai today, TAAM stated:

• Our concern extends beyond the Munjikal dump. The fact that this company, which vehemently denied all charges of wrongdoing, now admits that such wastes may be lying in various locations outside the factory fuels our concern of the long-term impact to the water bodies in those areas.

• The Alliance appeals to the Tamilnadu public and to the Government to look out for any stockpiles or dumps of glass or thermometer wastes and report the same to the Alliance and/or the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board.

• Despite the company’s assurances that their production practices pose no risk to the workers, statements from workers and ex-workers recorded by the Alliance indicate that mercury was handled casually in the factory shop-floor lending weight to allegations by many workers of occupational exposure to mercury and associated health effects.

“Workers tells us that mercury spillage on the floor, and intentional and accidental handling of mercury is routine within the factory. Workers were certainly exposed to mercury vapours, more in some sections than others,” said Dr. Kolhatkar, a medical doctor and member of the Kodaikanal Consumer Action Group.

"If big companies like HLL practices such dangerous working conditions, then one dreads to think what small mercury thermometer factories around the country are doing", said Madhumita Dutta, a TAAM member and activist with new Delhi based Toxics Link.

Incidentally, two months ago 118 tonnes stockpile of used toxic mercury from a closed down US based chlorine-caustic factory was destined to be shipped to a secret recipient in India. The toxic trade was stopped due to huge international opposition from environmental groups around the world which includes Greenpeace, Toxics Link-India, Srishti-Delhi, Basel Action Network, All India Port and Dock Workers' Federation, Penobscot Alliance for Mercury Elimination, Maine Peoples Alliance, Mercury Policy Project and the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

"We strongly urge our government to take proactive measures and frame rules and policy with the ultimate goal of eliminating mercury and encourage adoption of safer alternatives to the limited application of mercury in the production processes and products", said Basel Action Network spokesperson Ravi Agarwal in New Delhi.

NOTES:

1. On March 7, residents of Kodaikanal, HLL’s ex-workers and environmental and human rights activists exposed from HLL’s recently discovered 15-ton mercury waste dumpsite to the factory gates to demand an immediate end to the mercury pollution. Mercury, in the presence of water, readily converts into methyl mercury, a deadly poison, which is persistent in the environment and moves through the food chain magnifying up to 100,000 times in quantity by the time it reaches the top predators in aquatic ecosystems.

2. Hindustan Lever’s entire production from the thermometer factory is exported to the United States, for sale in Germany, UK, Spain, USA, Australia and Canada. The mercury for the plant is imported, mainly from the United States. The factory, set up in 1977, was a second-hand plant imported from Cheseborough Ponds from the United States, after the US factory was shutdown for unknown reasons. Hindustan Lever is a 51% owned subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever.

3. The Tamilnadu Alliance Against Mercury comprises local, national and international environmental, worker and human rights organizations.

4. Owing to the extreme toxicity of some of the mercury compounds and the practical difficulty in keeping pollution to harmless levels has resulted in various national and regional initiatives to eliminate all releases of mercury into the environment. In India, mercury is still classified as a low-level hazard according to the Ministry of Environment.

5. Health warnings have been issued in 41 states in the United States advising people to reduce or avoid consumption of fresh water fish and certain seafood due to mercury contamination. Goals have been set to virtually eliminate mercury releases from human activities in the New England states, the Great Lakes region and other states and provinces.

6. Faced with growing environmental concerns surrounding the toxic metal, many US cities, states and hospitals are phasing out mercury thermometers as a first step towards eliminating mercury releases into the environment. Boston, San Francisco, and the US state of New Hampshire have outlawed mercury thermometers. In September 2000, 11 leading retailers and manufacturers in the United States, including Walmart, Kmart Corporation and Meijer's Supermarkets, announced that they would terminate sales of mercury fever thermometers.

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