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Mercury exposure: panel to probe health condition of former factory workers

1 July 2007
THE HINDU
Special Correspondent

CHENNAI: The Madras High Court has formed an experts' committee to assess the health condition of former workers of Hindustan Lever's Clinical Thermometer Factory at Kodaikanal allegedly exposed to toxic mercury.

The First Bench, comprising Chief Justice A.P. Shah and Justice K. Chandru, said the five-member committee would report to the court as to whether the symptoms shown by the workers and their family members were linked to mercury exposure.

The matter relates to problems such as asthma, hypertension, nervous, cardiac and renal problems faced by the workers of the factory established in Kodaikanal in 1983. While obtaining permission, the management was granted special exemption by the State Government since it had been declared a non-polluting venture. Hindustan Lever Limited acquired the factory from Ponds in 1997.

The petitioner-association submitted that about 1,200 workers, including casual and contract staff, trainees and temporary labour were not told about the hazardous nature of mercury or provided with proper safety gear. R. Vaigai, counsel for the petitioners, said the management deliberately suppressed information about the toxic effect of mercury.

The workers continued to be exposed to the risk till the factory was shut down in 2001. Till then, 165 million thermometers were produced. Most of the workers were rendered unfit for any other employment due to mercury-induced ailments. The factory had a "catastrophic" effect on the environment as well, with the nearby forests and a water source being polluted, the petitioner said.

The petitioner-association sought an interim direction to the company to deposit Rs. 10 crore to commission a healthcare facility for the affected workers. It also demanded an economic rehabilitation and health scheme for the former workers and prosecution of the guilty.

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