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Mercury staff `were poisoned'

In 1987 Thor closed its mercury plant in Margate, Kent. There had been repeated inquiries by the Health and Safety Executive into the high levels of mercury being absorbed by workers. The chemicals company no longer makes mercury-based products.

In Cato Ridge, Natal, however, the company's subsidiary Thor Chemicals SA expanded its mercury reprocessing operation, using technology dev- eloped in Britain.

Workers from South Africa who will seek damages in the High Court in London next October allege that they were not warned of the potential dangers of their job. In statements, they say that when the mercury levels in their urine reached dangerous levels they were told to "have a few beers" by the management.

In 1992, workers say they realised something was seriously wrong. They began to hal- lucinate and show other symptoms of mercury poisoning. Peter Cele, 21, died after six months in hospital. Englebert Ngcobe, 54, died after three years. Both their families are suing Thor. The company is also being sued by 16 other workers and the relatives of two others who have since died.