Questions & Answers – Kodaikanal Factory

09-03-2016

In 2015, a video referring to a former thermometer factory of Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) was posted on social media. The video contains several inaccuracies. Some NGOs and campaigning organizations have also made allegations in social media which were reported in media.

We understand why people want to get involved and take action, but want to ensure that it’s rooted in fact. We fully recognise and respect the power of social media to draw attention to issues people care about. Like the campaigners who produced it, we also care about this issue and are taking it very seriously.

We would never allow our employees to suffer ill-health because of their employment with us and not address it. Four separate, independent studies, carried out by experts on mercury-related health complaints, concluded that our former employees were not harmed by working in our factory in Kodaikanal.

An environmental assessment and risk assessment found no significant risks due to the mercury. Other assessments have also confirmed the same.

Nonetheless, since this episode first came to light we have actively sought to address it in a responsible manner. We reached a settlement on humanitarian grounds with our former workers in March 2016. We are keen to clean up the factory site.

The following are a series of inaccurate claims being made and the correct facts on each.

Inaccurate claim: HUL has poisoned thousands of their own workers by exposing them to mercury poisoning

The facts:

Several independent studies have all proved that no worker from the factory has suffered ill health due to mercury poisoning.

  • Immediately on closure of the factory, HUL appointed Dr P.N. Vishwanathan, retired Director (Industrial Toxicological Research Centre, Lucknow) and member of WHO task group on environmental group criteria for mercury environmental aspects, to carry out an inspection and report any contamination. DrViswanathan gave a report in March 2001, which concluded:

"at present there appears no evidence to show any ecological or human risk due to Hg release from the unit. … even any shadow of doubt based on unknown or imaginary future risks can be removed."

  • HUL’s registered medical advisors wrote letters to local doctors in Kodaikanal asking them to inform the company if in their private or hospital practice they have ever encountered any mercury-related ill health effects in our employees who may have come to them for medical treatment sometime or other. None of the doctors reported having encountered any mercury-related ill effects on the employees during their medical treatment. 
  • On March 19, 2001, HUL sent out individual communication to all employees of the plant and also those who had retired or left earlier inviting them to participate in health check ups. Subsequently, group medical check-ups were organised from March 21, 2001, to March 24, 2001 and all those who volunteered were comprehensively examined by a team of doctors.
  • On April 2, 4 and 5, 2001, advertisements were published in local newspapers imploring all those who were connected with the factory (directly or indirectly) to come for a free and extensive medical check-up in camps conducted on April 2, 2001F and April 10, 2001. During these group health check-ups, 255 persons were medically examined by an experienced team of doctors from diverse faculties with the focus on investigating mercury-related effects on their health. Samples of blood and urine were taken to reach correct conclusions. This was done not because there was any evidence of effect of mercury on the health of anyone, but to remove all doubts on the same in consonance with our responsible approach.
  • On April 17, 2001, based on the recommendation of Greenpeace, TNPCB directed HUL to appoint Dr Tom Van Tunenbroek of TNO, an eminent consultant, for health surveillance. He concluded on October 1, 2003, as follows:

"My overall conclusion based on a thorough review of the occupational health surveillance measures (biological monitoring, workplace, environmental monitoring, shop floor health and safety practices and clinical evaluations) as well as the analysis of group and individual loading over the years, based on a wealth of data due to monitoring at a frequency well above WHO standards, is that there has been no harmful exposure to mercury amongst the employees of the Kodaikanal factory leading to chronic or acute mercury poisoning".

  • On November 9, 2001, a team of medical experts of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences deliberated on the issue and concluded as follows:

"The Occupational Health and Safety measures in place at the Kodaikanal factory have succeeded in keeping the exposure of the factory employees to Hg to consistently acceptable low levels. In view of the comprehensive occupational health surveillance carried out over a period of more than 12 years, specially keeping in view the monthly biological monitoring of Hg in urine (as compared with the WHO recommended 6 monthly to yearly evaluations) and detailed individual annual clinical and biochemical records of the employees and the recently (March 2001 and May 2001) carried out comprehensive Clinical – epidemiological and environmental study , there is no evidence to suggest any adverse health effects that can be attributed to mercury exposure.."

  • On January 10, 2002, the Indian Association of Occupational Health, India, (IAOH) gave a report of the Expert Committee which concluded: "The IAOH expert group is of opinion that with the measures taken by HLL for protecting workers health & adequate safety measures in place, any adverse consequences of mercury exposure on workers’ health are highly unlikely at the thermometer factory in Kodaikanal."
  • In February 2006, almost five years after the closure of the factory, some ex-employees of the factory filed a writ petition before the Madras High Court seeking a scheme of economic rehabilitation and health care for the ex-workers and other victims, who have suffered exposure to the toxic mercury.
  • On June 29, 2007, the Madras High Court appointed an expert committee to examine the claims of the workmen and HUL, and submit a report. This expert committee, chaired by Dr A. K Srivasatava, Deputy Director and head of the epidemiology division, Indian Toxicological Research Centre (ITRC) Lucknow, had members from ITRC, NIOH, CMC Vellore, AIIMS Delhi and MAMC New Delhi. The composition of the Committee was also consented to by the Petitioners.
  • This committee submitted its report on December 29, 2007, and concluded:

"Based on the site visit, the clinical evaluation of subjects considered to be most affected by the petitioners on site at Kodaikanal and a comprehensive review of all available material on hand and keeping in view the available contemporary scientific literature the committee members after careful consideration concluded that the committee failed to find sufficient evidence to link the current clinical condition of the factory workers to the mercury exposure in the factory in the past."

"In view of the reasons as mentioned above the committee does not recommend any further study – the ex-workers not only had an opportunity to get exposed to mercury but also had to go through a process of losing job and facing consequent socio-economic dislocations. This could have induced life style changes which could have had an effect on perceived health status. Hence, at this point in time it will be difficult to bring out the pure ill effects of mercury on them".

  • Contrary to other claims, there is no authoritative medical data from any report showing that our operations at Kodaikanal caused illness. The Ministry of Labour report that is cited in much of the media coverage was fundamentally flawed in its methodology:
  • No medical examinations were made by the committee that carried out the study. They only interviewed those who came for examination and made notes on their complaints without examining them.
  • The report was based on health assessments which did not seek to establish any cause-effect relationship between the ill health of the workers and their time at the factory, despite the fact that their symptoms could have occurred due to many other factors.
  • This is a fundamental difference between this committee and the other expert committees who considered all data (biological monitoring, workplace environmental monitoring and the clinical evaluations done) before arriving at their conclusions and recommendations.

Inaccurate claim: 18 children of former workers, and 45+ former workers have now died or been severely affected.

The facts:

  • It is incorrect to attribute the death of any employees or deformities in their children on account of mercury exposure from our operations.
  • HUL has looked at the cause of death of its former workers. Many died from underlying causes like diabetes or heart attack. Some were due to post-surgery, infections like TB or Bronchial infections, others from road accident, suicide, fall from height etc. There has been no death certificate produced listing the cause of death as being related to mercury. 
  • Several of the abnormalities cited in recent coverage are ones which global medical experts agree are not caused by mercury. In addition it is an established fact of science that elemental mercury does not have mutagenic potential and does not cause congenital malformations – in other words, cannot be passed on to the next generation.

Inaccurate claim: tons of toxic mercury waste was dumped and has not been cleaned up, with negative environmental effects outside the factory

The facts:

  • HUL did not dump mercury contaminated glass waste. The glass scrap with mercury residue was sold in breach of the company’s established procedures to a scrap dealer whose scrapyard was three kilometers away.
  • The company voluntarily stopped the manufacturing operations immediately and closed the factory (the very next day) after it got to know about this. Soil and air samples collected from the scrap yard and the surrounding area did not show mercury contamination.
  • In 2001 and 2002, URS Dames and Moore carried out a comprehensive survey of sites including Pambar Shola Fall, Kodailake, Scrapyard Site. The URS reports deal with environmental assessment and risk assessment and it found no significant risks due to the mercury. Other assessments have also confirmed the same.

Inaccurate claim: the factory workers were not properly protected or advised of the risks of exposure

The facts:

  • The safety and wellbeing of our employees and the community is paramount. There was no violation in the running of the factory operations as far as the safety and health of our employees was concerned.
  • Our factories have always been operated with the highest levels of safety. There were two separate sections in the factory – a mercury and non-mercury area.
  • All the workers who were working in the mercury area were provided with safety and protective equipment. In addition:
regular health checks were conducted as part of our employee wellbeing policy
the urine samples of all our workers were regularly monitored to ensure compliance to WHO guidelines.
the air quality was monitored to ensure it complied with Government of India norms.
  • All of these were found to be in order. We have exhaustive medical records over years for all employees which have been submitted to the honourable court.
  • Finally, regular external audits by the statutory authorities – ie: the Certified Surgeon from the Factory Inspectorate, Officials of the TNPCB and Deputy Chief of Factories, were also conducted.

Inaccurate claim: HUL is not paying up to help the victims

The facts:

  • All workers were offered alternative employment at another location. The severance package provided by Unilever for the workmen was higher than the statutory requirement.  When the factory closed in 2001, the severance package was settled before the Deputy Labour Commissioner and was equal to approximately six months’ salary for every year of service completed by the workmen.
  • In February 2006, some of the ex-employees of the Kodaikanal factory approached the Madras High Court seeking various reliefs including economic rehabilitation. The court on two occasions appealed to both parties involved to discuss the issue and resolve it amicably.
  • We have been engaging with our former workers’ representatives to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution. This is still our firm intent. Since 2014, we have had several meetings with former employees’ representatives to discuss a fair resolution.
  • HUL reached a settlement on humanitarian grounds with the former workers. This agreement was signed on March 4, 2016 in the presence of representatives of former workers and HUL. The Hon’ble High Court of Madras took the settlement agreement on record. As part of the agreement, HUL, with an objective to ensure long term wellbeing of its former workers, has agreed to provide ex gratia payments to 591 former workers/association members and their families to be used towards livelihood enhancement projects and skill enhancement programs.
  • The settlement puts an end to this longstanding matter which has been pending in the Madras High Court for several years and is in keeping with the Court’s suggestion to seek an out-of-court resolution. The petition which was filed in 2006 will be withdrawn by the former workers association.

Inaccurate claim: HUL has made no move to clean up the factory site

The facts:

  • We acted with speed and a sense of urgency and responsibility when we first became aware of this issue. We commissioned detailed studies by international experts to assess the environmental risk and working with the TNPCB and the SCMC to find the most appropriate way for soil remediation.
  • In 2001, we took all the glass scrap with residual mercury from the scrap yard back to our factory for safe storage along with the soil beneath the scrap. We also took action to track down any glass scrap that left the site over the previous 10 years and brought back the available glass scrap from the identified sites.
  • In 2003, 290 tonnes of mercury bearing material (including ETP sludge) was exported to a mercury recycler (Bethlehem Apparatus Company Inc.) in the USA, after obtaining appropriate permissions.
  • Pre-remediation work was started in 2009 but the criteria set by the TNPCB was contested by NGOs, which has delayed these efforts.
  • On August 10 2015, HUL submitted a Detailed Project Report for soil remediation to TNPCB.
  • On 31 December, 2016, HUL received permission from TNPCB to commence preparatory work and trials for soil remediation at former factory site in Kodaikanal. To read more about this, please click here. HUL is committed to cleaning up the site.

Inaccurate claim: HUL would not be able to get away with such low standards of clean up in Europe

The facts:

  • There is no single clean-up standard for mercury contamination either in India or any other country.
  • Some countries have established preliminary screening criteria, which are used by regulators to determine whether a site is potentially contaminated. These criteria vary from country to country and are different to the standards which regulators set when remediation is required, which is based on a risk assessment study of the site in accordance with international best practice. The US EPA, UK Environment Agency and European Environmental Protection Agencies all follow this approach.
  • This is the same procedure that has been followed by TNPCB and Scientific Experts Committee for setting the remediation standard for soil clean up in the factory premises in Kodaikanal. This standard was also confirmed by the Central Pollution Control Board.
  • We are committed to cleaning up to the level set by the regulator.
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