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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
Name of conflict:Unilever refused responsability for Kodaikanal mercury poisoning, India
State or province:Tamil Nadu
Location of conflict:Kodaikanal
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 commodities:Manufactured Products
Medical equipment (Thermometers)
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Hindustan 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.

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Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:30,000
Start of the conflict:01/01/2001
Company names or state enterprises:Hindustan Unilever (HUL) from India
Unilever from Netherlands
Relevant government actors:Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB)
Madras High Court
Department of Atomic Energy of Government of India
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association
Community Environment Monitoring (The Other Media)
Tamil Nadu Alliance Against Mercury (TNAAC)
Community Health Centre
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Industrial workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Artistic 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
Other Health impactsMercury poisoning
Socio-economical 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
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Court decision (undecided)
Withdrawal of company/investment
Despite large attention, the company refused to face its liability
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain: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 & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries 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.
[click to view] - 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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Indian Express - Mercury Pollution-hit Kodai Unilever Ex-workers Protest at Firm's Mumbai HQ
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Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[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.
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Link to the online 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.
[click to view]

Other comments:References to UPDATE section in Sources of Conflict, added in 2017.
Meta information
Contributor:Federico Demaria / Brototi Roy
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2200
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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