Unilever refused responsability for Kodaikanal mercury poisoning, India

Unilever's thermometer plant in Kodaikanal exposed many workers to mercury poisoning, without giving them any protective equipment or information about the disastrous health effects of mercury.


Unilever's thermometer plant in Kodaikanal exposed many workers to mercury poisoning, without giving them any protective equipment or information about the disastrous health effects of mercury. This toxic mercury, dumped around the factory and in forests, continues to contaminate soil and groundwater, affecting thousands. The workers cannot afford private healthcare, and have been fighting since 2001, asking Unilever to clean up the toxic contamination, and to compensate them for their medical expenses.

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Basic Data
NameUnilever refused responsability for Kodaikanal mercury poisoning, India
ProvinceTamil Nadu
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Manufacturing activities
Specific CommoditiesMedical equipment (Thermometers)
Manufactured Products
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsHindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) is an Indian consumer goods company based in Mumbai, Maharashtra. It is owned by Anglo-Dutch company Unilever which owns a 67% controlling share in HUL as of March 2015 and is the holding company of HUL. HUL's products include foods, beverages, cleaning agents, personal care products and water purifiers.

Hindustan Unilever's distribution covers over 2 million retail outlets across India directly and its products are available in over 6.4 million outlets in the country. As per Nielsen market research data, two out of three Indians use HUL products.

The mercury contamination in Kodaikanal originated at a thermometer factory that was owned by Hindustan Unilever. Unilever acquired the thermometer factory from cosmetics maker Pond's India Ltd. Pond's moved the factory from the United States to India in 1982 after the plant owned there by its parent, Chesebrough-Pond's, had to be dismantled following increased awareness in developed countries of polluting industries. In 1987, Pond's India and the thermometer factory went to Hindustan Unilever when it acquired Cheseborough-Pond's globally.

The factory imported mercury from the United States, and exported finished thermometers to markets in the United States and Europe. Around 2001, a number of workers at the factory began complaining of kidney and related ailments. Public interest groups such as Tamil Nadu Alliance Against Mercury (TNAAC) alleged that the Company had been disposing mercury waste without following proper protocols. In early 2001, public interest groups unearthed a pile of broken glass thermometers with remains of Mercury from an interior of part of the shola forest, which they suspected could have come from the company. In March, a public protest led by local workers' union and international environmental organisation Greenpeace forced the company to shut down the factory. Soon the company admitted that it did dispose of mercury contaminated waste. The company said in its 2002 annual report and its latest Sustainability Report that it did not dump glass waste contaminated with mercury on the land behind its factory, but only a quantity of 5.3 metric tonnes of glass containing 0.15% residual mercury had been sold to a scrap recycler located about three kilometers from the factory, in breach of the company procedures. Quoting a report prepared by an international environmental consultant, Unilever said there was no health effect on the workers of the factory or any impact on the environment.
Type of PopulationUrban
Potential Affected Population30,000
Start Date01/01/2001
Company Names or State EnterprisesHindustan Unilever (HUL) from India
Unilever from Netherlands
Relevant government actorsTamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB)

Madras High Court

Department of Atomic Energy of Government of India
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersEx-Mercury Employees Welfare Association

Community Environment Monitoring (The Other Media)

Tamil Nadu Alliance Against Mercury (TNAAC)


Community Health Centre
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingIndustrial workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of MobilizationArtistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Boycotts of companies-products
Famous rap song [1]
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths
OtherMercury poisoning
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Violations of human rights
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..)
Project StatusStopped
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCompensation
Court decision (undecided)
Withdrawal of company/investment
Despite large attention, the company refused to face its liability
Do you consider this as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.The factory has been closed, however the site has not been decontaminated, and the workers had not been compensated until 2016, when there was some monetary compensation. However, many health damages were irreparable.
Sources and Materials

Kodaimercury.org library
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"Poisoned ground" by Sarah Hiddleston at Frontline magazine.
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[2] Petition: "Unilever – take responsibility for Kodaikanal mercury poisoning"

hatkaa member confronted Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman at the Paris Climate Conference and questioned him about his company’s actions in Kodaikanal. And this is what he had to say:

“That [Kodaikanal] was 15 years ago, and well, there was no pollution. We have developed Kodaikanal and given people there a better life.”

This is appalling. 15 years ago, Hindustan Unilever dumped toxic mercury waste in Kodaikanal. The company’s ex-workers were made to handle mercury, which is extremely dangerous, without protective gear. Hundreds of them continue to suffer serious health problems to this day, and have not received any compensation from Unilever.

Losing family members, living in perpetual illness and not being able to afford hospital bills, and living with toxic pollution … is this Paul Polman’s idea of a “better life”?

Join the campaign to demand Unilever clean up their mercury mess in Kodaikanal and compensate ex-workers.
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Indian Express - Mercury Pollution-hit Kodai Unilever Ex-workers Protest at Firm's Mumbai HQ
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Kodaimercury.org - Ex-Mercury workers protest death of their co-worker; demand HLL to accept liability
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Kodaikanal mercury poisoning (Wikipedia)
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Media Links

[1] Song: "Kodaikanal Won't" - Written by Chennai-born rapper Sofia Ashraf and set to Nicki Minaj's “Anaconda,” the video takes an undisguised jab at Unilever for its failure to clean up mercury contamination or compensate workers affected by its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal.
[click to view]

Link to the online campaign- https://act.jhatkaa.org/campaigns/10?utm_campaign=jhatkaa&utm_medium=jhatkaa-org&utm_source=wp_campaign
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New song, 2018 by T.M.Krishna, Sofia Ashraf and others. Three years ago, Unilever broke its silence on the mercury mess in Kodaikanal and compensated 591 of its ex-workers. But the factory site continues to be tainted with toxic mercury today.
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Other Documents

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Source: Decan Chronicle
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Other CommentsReferences to UPDATE section in Sources of Conflict, added in 2017.

1. http://www.hindustantimes.com/business/hindustan-unilever-settles-with-kodaikanal-workers-affected-by-mercury-factory/story-5YSS6vb8E2DB9mGGVsculO.html

2. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/kodaikanal-mercury-contamination-unilever-pays-settlement-workers/1/615992.html

3. http://kodaimercury.org/dont-accept-sub-standard-cleanup-in-kodai-write-to-the-environment-minister/

4. http://kodaimercury.org/high-mercury-levels-fish-kodai-lake-periakulam-ponds-iit-hyderabad-study-cautions-fish-consumers-2/

5. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/study-indicates-high-level-of-mercury-in-fish-at-kodai-lake/article20406597.ece

6. https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/141117/high-mercury-levels-in-fish-at-kodai-lake-iit-report.html
Meta Information
ContributorFederico Demaria / Brototi Roy
Last update05/12/2018