news Friday, June 26, 2015 - 05:30
  It’s been almost fifteen years since Unilever’s subsidiary Hindustan Lever Limited closed down its mercury thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. Shut down after the discovery of carelessly disposed mercury in and around a thermometer factory in the hill-station in 2001, new studies of samples have proven heightened presence of mercury in plant life near the area. In April this year, fourteen samples of lichen, moss and sediment were collected by Community Environment Monitoring, a TN-based organisation from four locations which were then tested at the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE)’s National Centre for Compositional Characterisation of Materials in Hyderabad. According to the report, the lichen samples collected from near a stream on the Levange path and 300 m south of the factory building and into the Shola watershed contained the highest amount amongst all samples - 53 mg/kg of mercury. In comparison, a moss sample taken from the same spot contained 8.68 mg/kg. Another lichen sample collected from a private property across the street from the factory contained 2.96 mg/kg. Amongst the sediment samples collected from inside the Pambar Shola, 1.52 mg/kg was the highest. "To put that in perspective, the permissible levels for mercury in residential areas in the UK is 1 mg/kg", says environmentalist, Nithyanand Jayaraman.  A gram of mercury is enough to poison a 25–acre lake, he said, in an earlier report. At a press conference releasing the new findings of the samples tested in April To make it even clearer, just 10 mg of mercury per one gram of soil is toxic to a number of organisms, said a report. The samples taken further away inside the Pambar Shola reserve forests were higher at 1.52 mg/kg and 0.54 mg/kg. What makes it even more dangerous is when it enters the food chain and takes on a more deadly form when consumed in the form of fish, say activists. “Just because the factory is closed does not mean that it will not pollute the environment. What we need is expedited cleanup under public supervision,” said Nithyanand Jayaraman The Pambar Shola forest which lies on a slope below the Hindustan Lever factor location with streams passing from there through the forests and into the acquatic life in the rivers. “ The streams pass through to the Pambar river which then passes on to join the Varaha river which in turn connects with the Vaigai river, said Shekar Dattatri, a wild-life filmmaker who has previously directed “Save Our Sholas” . Stating that it was not just people in and around Kodaikanal affected by the mercury, he referred to Kall-passi, a flavouring agent procured from the hills of Kodaikanal and sold in a number of cities. Mercury has a dangerous effect on the nervous, digestive and immune system and to lungs, kidneys, eyes. However, it is more dangerous as it biomagnifies as it climbs up from the bottom to the top of foodchain, reports the US Geological Survey. Biomagnification is the process where there is an incremental increase in the levels of contaminant at every step of the food chain, said the report . When humans ingest mercury it is usually in one of its most lethal form, methyl mercury . Though the Unilever company promised to bring down mercury levels to less than 10mg/kg of soil, in 2008, Unilever was allowed to conduct “soil remediation”, after the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board downgraded the permissable cleanup levels to 25 mg/kg of mercury in the soil, said Nithyanand Jayaraman.  The recent samples taken show twice the amount in certain spots tested.
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