In the summer of 2015, a group of 50 awardees of the Goldman Environmental Prize, popularly known as the Green Nobel, shot off an indignant letter to the then CEO of Unilever Plc, Paul Polman.

The letter sent via email asked Unilever to accept responsibility for the devastation of the pristine south Indian hill station of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, where hundreds of people had been suffering from mercury-related ailments since the 1980s.

This was the first time in the history of Unilever, the fourth largest consumer goods company in the world, that its CEO had confessed to the company’s significant historical lapses – slip-ups that had occurred long before Polman had even joined Unilever. But what Polman did not optimally address in his response was the large-scale destruction of the unique biodiversity of a fragile ecosystem, locally known as Pambar Shola, similar to the Amazon forests of Brazil, Borneo in Southeast Asia, and Madagascar in Africa, where thousands of endangered and near-extinct flora and fauna delicately coexist.

At the same time, he accepted the suffering of over 500 former workers of the now-defunct factory that had manufactured thermometers for almost two decades using a dangerously poisonous heavy metal – mercury. Mercury exposure was known to cause developmental disorders in pregnant women and newborns and also trigger nephrological and neurological disorders, including progressive degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The concerns had presented themselves when the factory was forced to shut down on a morning in March 2001, after members of the local community and the international environmental campaign organisation Greenpeace found out that Unilever had been indiscriminately disposing of mercury laden glass waste by selling it to local scrap dealers. This waste had then travelled across southern India and made it to households in the form of consumables ranging from glass marbles to bulbs and lamps.

Ruth Priya, formerly an employee in the mercury-packing division of the factory from 1991 to 2001, remembers working on the shop floor without an overcoat, head cover or gloves and going home in her mercury-laden clothes. She would hang them in her closet along with other garments and return to the factory wearing the same set of clothes the next morning.

Towards the end of her career with the company, whenever Priya suffered from headaches and tremors during work hours, the factory management would give her paracetamol tablets. Despite growing up as a healthy child, she would be easily overcome by giddiness and exhaustion after working at the factory for a few years.

In 2001, she had twin boys, both of whom displayed deformities at birth. One of them had a cleft foot while the other would gradually suffer from memory loss. With regular medical assistance, however, the children were able to experience a relatively normal childhood. Arokiaselva Raja, another ex-worker, was faced with an even harsher indictment. He had spent 12 years with Hindustan Lever, leaving in 1997 to undergo medical treatment. His job was to grade and laser-cut mercury thermometers, and screen them on the shop floor. He decided to resign from the company so that he could get himself hospitalised. A few months later, he died at the age of 32.

A non-smoker and teetotaller, Raja began to show some early symptoms of mercury poisoning soon after joining the company. He would have occasional nosebleeds and vomit blood. Each time, the infirmary at the factory would give him over-the-counter pills to tackle the issues.

One day in 1995, Raja developed an extremely high fever with swellings all over his body, especially in his testicles. A detailed medical check-up and consultation revealed that he was suffering from renal parenchyma, a disease that damages the cortex and the medulla of the kidneys – typically caused by the nephrotoxicity of Mercury.

His creatinine levels, the prime indicator of kidney damage, kept shooting up during the next couple of months, even though he availed the finest medical treatment with the funds his family could muster by borrowing and mortgaging. Eventually, the doctors advised his family to take him home as nothing more could be done medically, his condition having deteriorated into multiple organ failure. As Raja’s brother Sebastian revealed in a deposition before the IPT several years later: “With limited time left, we finally brought him and even gave him treatment at home but his body would swell up and he would be in terrible pain. Soon he started bleeding rectally and died on April 27, 1997.”

Ve Paneerselvam Yesudas, another factory worker, succumbed to kidney failure at the age of 28, within five months of Raja’s death.

And so the list went on.

Excerpted with permission from Heavy Metal: How a Global Corporation Poisoned Kodaikanal, Ameer Shahul, Pan Macmillan.