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Issue 3
February , 2007
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Thermometor factory workers take to streets over mercury deaths in Tamil Nadu

Source: IANS, Date: February , 2007

The death of a 47-year-old man who had worked for a Hindustan Lever thermometer factory for 18 years brought out hundreds of ex-employees, who had also been exposed to toxic mercury, to the streets in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu.

P. Natarajan passed away middle of the last month, prompting more than 500 protesters, who said he had been slowly poisoned to death by mercury contamination, to block roads and demand an autopsy to assess the possibility of mercury-induced damage.

Many in the crowd, including civil rights and environmental activists, had also worked with Natarajan in the factory on the outskirts of this resort town before it was shut down by the government in March 2001.

A large number of workers were exposed to mercury because of unsafe working conditions and the failure of the management to inform employees about the dangers of toxic metal when the factory started in 1983, said a former worker K. Gopalakrishnan.

'We learnt about the harmful effects on mercury only recently from friends and experts outside,' he added.

'Even though mercury is a neuro-toxic chemical and a known poison, HLL (Hindustan Lever Ltd) chose to hide safety information from the workers and wilfully poisoned them.'

Mercury is a nerve poison that can cause subtle to severe long-term effects, including kidney damage, even at very low concentrations.

Natarajan was employed in the mercury filling area, one of the high-exposure areas.

Scores of people in the area suffer from skin diseases, premature greying, incessant headaches, stomach pain, kidney problems and blood in the urine, say the former workers who approached the Supreme Court in 2005 demanding compensation.

'HLL has caused irreparable damage to the health of the workers. More than 20 workers between the ages of 22 and 35 years have died due to poisoning from the factory in the last 18 years,' Mahendra Babu, president of the Ponds-HLL Ex Mercury Worker's Welfare Association, told IANS.

Greenpeace activist Navroz Mody said: 'The Indian government must prosecute HLL for the murder of at least 17 workers.'

In 1983, Hindustan Lever's predecessor Pond's India Ltd relocated a 30-year thermometer factory from Watertown, New York, to India. The factory had reportedly shut down in New York for environmental reasons.

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