By Janet Harmer and Lisa Jenkins
Mercury contamination allegedly caused by Anglo-Dutch global consumer goods giant Unilever has been highlighted in a video by Indian rapper Sofia Ashraf from Madras, and has gone viral with more than 1.8m hits on YouTube.
The video, which was published at the end of last week, calls on Unilever to clean up toxic mercury "dumped" in Kodaikanal, a town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and alleges the poisoning of workers at its thermometer factory site and environmental damage to forests.
A statement issued by Unilever to The Caterer today said: "The safety of our employees is our number one priority. We closed down the factory and launched an investigation into this matter after it arose in 2001.
According to a report in The Times, Greenpeace and other groups have said that more than five tonnes of mercury-contaminated glass from the factory was sold to a local scrap dealer about two miles away from the plant, poisoning the local ecosystem. Former workers at the factory also claim their health was damaged by the contamination.
The story in The Times reported that Hindustan Unilever has denied the claims made in the video, and said "that the sale of scrap glass went against its internal procedures and led to the factory's immediate closure".
However, the statement from Unilever points out: "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. In addition, the findings from our own occupational health monitoring were 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'. An expert study has also concluded that there was no adverse impact on the environment in Kodaikanal."
The company, which is best known in the hospitality industry for global brands Knorr, Hellmann's and Marmite, goes on to explain that an environmental and risk assessment was undertaken by independent consultants URS Dames and Moore, which concluded that the Kodaikanal Lake had not been affected by mercury.
Unilever, which is well-known for its green credentials, confirmed that it has taken action to clean up the soil within the factory premises and will commence the soil remediation work at the site once the final consent is given by the TNPCB. The process so far includes the removal of 7.4 tonnes of mercury-bearing glass scrap from the site in 2000/2001 and the installation of five silt traps to prevent any discharge of soil from the factory into the Pambar valley - the only direction from which water flows out of the site and pre-remediation work that started in 2009. However, the criteria set by the TNPCB was contested by NGOs, which has delayed the pre-remediation work, with Unilever awaiting final consent before re-starting the work.
"The company 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," the statement concluded.
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