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Kodaikanal Mercury Factory – Contamination

The safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate is our number one priority.

In 2001, after becoming aware of an environmental breach at our former factory in Kodaikanal, we immediately closed the factory and launched an investigation.

Responding to concerns about our former mercury factory in Kodaikanal

About the Kodaikanal case

While extensive studies on the health of our former workers and the Kodaikanal environment have not found any evidence of harm, we take this issue very seriously. In 2016, we reached a settlement with the former workers of Kodaikanal factory on humanitarian grounds.

This agreement was signed on March 4, 2016 in the presence of representatives of former workers and HUL. 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.

This puts an end to the longstanding matter that was pending in the Madras High Court for several years and is in keeping with its suggestion to seek an out-of-court resolution. The petition which was filed in 2006 has been withdrawn.

Employee health

Several expert studies have been conducted since the factory’s closure and all have concluded that our former employees did not suffer ill-health due to the nature of their work. These include:

  • A comprehensive medical examination conducted by a panel of doctors
  • A study by the Certifying Surgeon from the Inspectorate of Factories
  • A study by Dr P N Viswanathan of the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC)
  • A study by Dr Tom van Teuenbroek of TNO, directed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB)
  • A study by the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC) as directed by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee.

In addition, the findings from our own occupational health monitoring was independently endorsed by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH).

These findings were also confirmed by an expert committee convened by the Madras High Court including representatives from ITRC, AIIMS and NIOH. Its report in 2007 concluded: "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".

Environment impact

An environmental and risk assessment, undertaken by the independent consultants URS Dames and Moore after the closure of the factory, concluded that there was no adverse impact on the environment in Kodaikanal, except in some areas of the factory premises.

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. The glass scrap with residual mercury had been sold to a scrap dealer about three kilometres away from the factory, in breach of our guidelines.

In 2003, we sent all mercury-bearing material to the US for recycling. In 2006, plant, machinery and materials used in thermometer manufacturing were decontaminated and disposed of safely to industrial recyclers.

Pre-remediation work was started in 2009 but the criteria set by the TNPCB was contested by NGOs, which has delayed these efforts.

In August 2015, HUL submitted a Detailed Project Report for soil remediation to TNPCB.

On December 31, 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.

On August 16, 2017, HUL commenced soil remediation on a trial basis at its former factory site in Kodaikanal. The trial was conducted for a period of three months and was successfully completed in November 2017 in accordance with the Detailed Project Report and as per the approval given by TNPCB. In February 2018, HUL submitted the final soil remediation plan for remediating the soil inside the factory premises to the TNPCB.

On June 11, 2018, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) received permission from Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to commence full scale soil remediation to the remedial standard of 20mg/kg at its former factory site in Kodaikanal.

Following this, some of the activists approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT) contesting the soil remediation standard of 20 mg/kg. The NGT has directed the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to obtain an expert opinion on whether the Site-Specific Target Level of 20 mg/kg is the right remediation standard. In the interim, the NGT has asked HUL to wait for its order to begin remediation of soil inside the factory premises.

On November 1, 2018, the Principal bench of NGT cleared the way for soil remediation at HUL’s former factory in Kodaikanal. The NGT has reaffirmed the soil remediation standard of 20 mg/kg.

The decision of the NGT was challenged before the Supreme Court of India. In March 2019, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition and allowed the soil remediation to go ahead.

HUL has received clearances/approvals for soil remediation from different statutory authorities including the Hill Area Conservation Authority, Forest Department, Department of Industrial Safety and Health.

HUL is committed to cleaning up the site. We will continue to act in a transparent and responsible manner regarding this matter, and have published more details on the facts about this case on our website.

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