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A mercury-spiked sample of the spice, paththar ke phool (stone flower), gave enough ammo to put a multibillion-dollar conglomerate in the dock
Good morning! In 2001, FMCG major Hindustan Unilever shut its mercury thermometer factory for breaching environmental violations. It was alleged that the consumer giant disposed of mercury waste without sticking to protocols. Fifteen years and a rap video later, Unilever signed a compensation settlement with ex-employees. Spoiler alert: The humble stone flower plays a role in unravelling Unilever's mistakes. An excerpt from Heavy Metal, journalist turned author Ameer Shahul, who documented the Kodaikanal mercury poisoning case. Plus: we've curated a list of long reads for the weekend.
Around the time the Dames & Moore team was completing its sample collection for its detailed analysis in early 2002, two young Hyderabad-based scientists arrived in Kodaikanal by a bus from Kodai Road, the nearest railhead.
Carrying their modest luggage, they walked over to a small lodge near the bus station where they would be stationed for the next couple of days, working to challenge a multinational behemoth on its professed ethical standards of corporate responsibility and accountability.
The duo, M. V. Balarama Krishna and D. Karunasagar, scientists at the Department of Atomic Energy’s National Centre for Compositional Characterisation of Materials (NCCCM) in Hyderabad, had arrived in Kodaikanal by mere chance. A few weeks earlier, their boss Dr J. Arunachalam was shopping at a departmental store in Hyderabad for groceries when his eyes caught something he hadn’t noticed earlier on a spice shelf. What he saw were grey- and white-coloured soft and dry flowery tissues of plant origin. The store boy explained that it was called raathi pootha in Telugu and paththar ke phool in Hindi, which was used to flavour biryani. Paththar ke phool can be literally translated as ‘stone flower’, meaning a flower found on rocks and granites.
Krishna and Karunasagar tried to find some reading material on the newfound spice. They could identify it as a lichen, which is not exactly a plant but covers almost seven per cent of our planet. Wondering why they had never studied such an important organism earlier, they decided to do more research on the species. As they scanned for information, they were shocked. A composite organism that is formed by a group of algae or cyanobacteria living with multiple fungi species in symbiosis, the lichens can survive extreme weather conditions and is one of the oldest living organisms on Earth. But as material chemists, they were most fascinated to discover that it absorbs metals and minerals from its surroundings and deposits them in its cells, while inhaling nutrients from the air for its survival. The lichen was being used in certain research projects as a bio-monitor for measuring atmospheric air quality. Both the scientists were now hooked.
Next morning, Dr Arunachalam carried one packet of raathi pootha from his kitchen shelf to the laboratory. At the lab, after cleaning, drying and powdering the sample, he tried it in the inductively coupled plasma quadrupole mass spectrometer (ICP–QMS) that had recently arrived with support from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to find any evidence of chemical elements in it. To his surprise, the results showed an extremely high spike, indicating a large quantity of metal deposits. Curious to find out which metal it was, his team tested it further for all possible heavy metals. After several trials, they arrived at one probable suspect – mercury.
It was a eureka moment for the team. But now there was no time to rest for they were confronted by a daunting question: If it was indeed mercury, where was it coming from?
It was a no-brainer that the location was somewhere with a large amount of mercury in the air. Could it be from near a mercury mine? They couldn’t find evidence of any known mercury mine in India. Then they wondered if it could be from a location where mercury was being dumped as waste from a factory or another source. Intrigued, they decided to investigate more.
One of them went back to the store in the city and asked the staff about the suppliers of the raathi pootha. All they shared was that it came from the ‘central store’. A few calls to the central store revealed that the supplier was a distributor in Chennai. After some long-distance calls to the distributor and with a bit of cajoling, he told them it was sourced from a seller in Madurai. Next, a little sweet-talking with the Madurai seller unearthed that he was getting it from traders in Batlagundu in the downhills of Kodaikanal. He said that raathi pootha was generally found in forests, from where it was gathered along with honey and other medicinal plants by tribal people. In Kodaikanal and surrounding areas, this was mainly done by members of a few dwindling tribes, including the Paliyan tribesmen.
The team had somewhat reached the bottom of the crucible with nowhere else to go. But Karunagasar’s search led him to an old news clipping in the Hindu about a factory that produced mercury thermometers being shut down in Kodaikanal a year ago on allegations of indiscriminate mercury waste disposal. When he shared the news clip with the team, the scientists breathed a sigh of relief, for they knew this was the key piece of information they had been desperately looking for. A vague picture started emerging in their mind as to how and from where the mercury could have landed in the lichen.
The following day, they discussed at length whether to visit the surroundings of the closed-down factory. Initially hesitant about going on a ‘treasure hunt’ for academic research, Dr Arunachalam soon admitted if the factory had indiscriminately dispersed mercury in the surroundings, it could wreak havoc on its vicinity, which in turn could be proven scientifically.
Back in 2002, Krishna and Karunasagar settled in their spare lodge room at Kodaikanal …
After several conversations with people at tea shops, around the lake and near the factory on St Mary’s Road, they gathered some key information: first, the local people were not aware of the dangers of mercury contamination in the air around them; second, the factory had been using liquid mercury for over seventeen years till 2001, which meant it could have been dispersed in the atmosphere for eighteen hours a day while the factory was operational; and finally, besides the atmospheric emissions, it was a fact that the company had disposed of mercury-laden waste to scrap dealers in Kodaikanal and beyond.
On returning to their room, the scientists chalked out a plan for the next day. The commonly found lichen in the area was Parmelia sulcata in addition to Funaria hygrometrica, a non-vascular plant known as moss, the samples for both of which had to be collected from at least three different locations – near the factory, from St Mary’s Road and from Berijam Lake, a pristine lake located roughly twenty kilometres from the factory. The samples had to be picked from tree trunks of arm-span height. Only the top part of the moss samples had to be collected, discarding the roots. At each location, samples had to be gathered from at least three spots, and had to be mixed to have uniform quality and then stored in clean plastic bags.
With the assistance of some locals, after collecting the lichen and moss samples, they collected air samples by a novel method of charcoal trapping. This was essential because the most plausible form of contamination around the factory in the air could be elemental mercury, which could be measured directly from the samples. Hence the air around the factory was sampled on activated charcoal filters using a special kit.
The two scientists knew that charcoal, a good gas absorbent, would soak up the air with all the present impurities that could be extracted and then analysed to find out the concentration of the contaminants. About 200 milligrams of activated charcoal packed in plastic tubes with nozzles at both ends was used for the sampling.
Both ends of the tube were plugged with glass wool so that air could pass through the activated charcoal bed to trap elemental mercury. Air was sucked in through charcoal at a flow rate of two litres per minute for fifteen minutes. Finished with their task for now, they packed the samples securely and boarded the evening bus to reach Kodai Road railway station, from where they would return to Hyderabad.
Back in their laboratory in Hyderabad, they stored the lichen and moss samples in a refrigerator. The samples were cleaned to remove any adhering particles by submerging in water and by agitating them in an ultrasonic bath. Once cleaned satisfactorily, they were dried in an oven for twenty-four hours at a temperature of 40°C before being crushed to a powder in a specialized machine.
Thereafter, experiments to measure mercury were carried out using ICP–QMS and a cold vapour atomic absorption spectrometer (CVAAS).
The trapped elemental mercury was extracted from the charcoal samples by shaking them with highly pure water’s sound energy. The results proved to be jaw-dropping. The mercury levels observed in the lichen and moss samples outside the factory were almost forty times above the normal levels prescribed by the IAEA, which was 0.2 microgram/kilogram (μgm/kg). The mercury profile of moss and lichen from twelve different locations indicated that the IAEA-fixed levels were only found in samples collected from a location twenty kilometres away from the factory, at the Berijam Lake.
Lichen samples from near the factory had a mercury concentration of 8 μgm/kg of lichen – at least forty times the normal level.
More alarming were the results from charcoal trapping. It showed that the air outside the factory had up to 2,640 times more mercury than the normal levels prescribed by global agencies.
(The following is an excerpt from Heavy Metal, authored by Ameer Shahul and published by Pan Macmillan India.)
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