Unilever India Pays for Mercury Contamination

Image credit:  Punit Paranjpe/AFP

Martin Luther King, Jr.  once said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This proved true in last week’s victory, after 15 years, for nearly 600 former workers exposed to toxic mercury at a now-closed Unilever thermometer factory in Tamil Nadu, India.

“The former workers, many of whom are sick owing to the occupational exposure to mercury, are elated,” writes ELAW partner Nityanand Jayaraman.  “The settlement amounts will help repay old debts, meet medical expenses and rebuild broken lives.”

A rap video that went viral last year brought recent attention to the plight of the workers.

The problem started in 1983 when a Unilever thermometer factory in Watertown, New York, shut down and moved to Kodaikanal, India.  Tons of mercury waste from broken thermometers at the India site found its way to a dirt lot in a neighborhood near the factory.

The factory was shut down in 2001 “after the company was caught for dumping toxic mercury wastes in a densely populated part of town,” says kodaimercury.org in its recent press release.  “By the company’s own admissions, more than 2 tonnes of mercury have been discharged into the environment.”

From 2006 to 2009, ELAW submitted expert testimony on behalf of the ex-workers showing how their exposures to mercury was associated with prolonged neurological impacts.

“Little would people realize how crucial ELAW’s support has been to getting past the halfway mark on this long campaign to hold Unilever accountable,” says Nity, who notes the job is not done:

“Even now, only one of two key issues has been resolved.  The settlement resolves all health-related claims of ex-workers, but the question of environmental remediation remains.”

ELAW will continue to work with partners in India to ensure that Unilever’s clean-up operation in Kodaikanal meets international standards.

Learn more about our work and how you can support ELAW by visiting our website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Maggie Keenan
Communications Director