The Union Carbide “giant hand” ads — and there were dozens of them in the series — typically explained how the company was wielding the powers of science and engineering, or touted the particular virtues of one or more products it was selling. Union Carbide was then ranked among the top 30 U.S. corporations on the Fortune 500 list, with mid-1960s annual revenues of about $1.5 billion or so.
One of Carbide’s giant hand ads, from 1963, shown at right, has the giant hand positioned in an agricultural field. One side of the field shows crop plants ravaged by disease and pestilence, and the other side, bountiful and productive – “protected” by the giant hand. The headline beneath the ad’s illustration reads: “Holding The Line …For a Richer Harvest.” The rest of the text explains:
Boll weevil, codling moth, leaf rollers, thrips and beetles . . . these are only a few of the thousands of insects that chew up millions of dollars worth of farm crops each year. Fortunately, however, they are no match for a new Union Carbide product called Sevin insecticide. In the United States and many other countries, the use of Sevin has already saved such staple crops as cotton, corn, fruits and vegetables from destruction by ravaging insects. You can now get Sevin insecticide for your own garden as part of the complete line of handy Eveready garden products that help you grow healthy vegetables and flowers. Sevin comes from years of research in Union Carbide laboratories and at an experimental farm in North Carolina where scientists prove out their latest agricultural chemicals. This is only one area in which chemicals from Union Carbide help improve everyday living. The people of Union Carbide are constantly at work searching for better products that will meet the needs of the future. ….A Hand in Things to Come. Union Carbide.Union Carbide – which today is part of the Dow Chemical Company (Dow acquired Carbide in 2001) – began its industrial life in the 1910s. Initially, it was formed in a merger of five companies that included, principally, two main businesses: the National Carbon Co., a maker of the first dry-cell battery, later trade-named Eveready, and the Union Carbide Co., a calcium chloride producer. By 1917, the new company was known as the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation. It was engaged primarily in metallurgical and carbon products, but soon added gases and chemicals to its repertoire, and by World War II, was also refining uranium. By the 1940s plastics and agricultural chemicals were emerging from its laboratories, and in the 1950s these became substantial parts of its business. Sevin, the insecticide touted in the ad at the top of this article, was introduced commercially by Carbide in 1958, made from the chemical carbaryl, which Carbide discovered. Carbaryl is part of the carbamate family of chemicals.
Carbaryl initially, was given a relatively clean bill of health in terms of its environmental and human toxicity. In fact, early on, the development of the carbamate insecticides was generally seen as something of a major breakthrough in pesticide chemistry, since the carbamates did not have the persistence of the chlorinated pesticides – which Rachel Carson would later single out in her seminal pesticide critique of 1962, Silent Spring. Still, carbaryl and Sevin, had toxic effects, not all of which were at first apparent. Carbaryl, the active ingredient in Sevin, is an inhibitor of the cholinesterase enzyme, found in nervous tissue, red blood cells, and plasma. That’s how it kills insects. But in the 1950s and early 1960s, environmental and health effects testing and analysis were very limited. And like other pesticides, carbaryl and Sevin would generate a long history of ongoing reviews by the U.S. EPA for health and environmental effects. Years later, in the early 2000s, the chemical would be classified as a likely human carcinogen by EPA based on animal feeding studies, though it is still used today. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Sevin was approved for use on hundreds of crops and other applications.Another of Union Carbide’s “giant hand” ads for Sevin touted the chemical as an orchard insecticide – an ad that Carbide titled, “Complexion Care for Apples.” The text of that ad explains:
Apples and peaches are the most tempting when they look best. Yet all season long fruits are exposed to attack from hungry insects that can stunt growth and leave ugly blemishes on the surface. This battle of the bugs is now being won with the remarkable Crag insecticide called Sevin. Highly effective against a wide range of insects, it helps fruit trees produce a crop with healthful beauty that is more than skin deep.
Many modern chemicals are used to do the work for you on the home garden front too. A complete line of garden products is available under Union Carbide’s well known Eveready trade-mark. There are dusts to keep delicate roses or tomatoes free from destructive bugs or fungus. . . weed killers that put an end to a back-breaking chore . . . and an all-purpose aerosol insecticide that had a lethal effect on insects in the garden or inside the house.
The people of Union Carbide are continuing their research to develop more of the products that help enrich your everyday life. Union Carbide. …A Hand in Things to Come.
Carbide’s “giant hand” ads became part the “good-life-with-chemicals-and-plastics” mantra that was a cornerstone of chemical company growth and messaging that went on for decades from the end of WWII through the 1960s and beyond. Environmental and public health risks were not the primary concerns of Union Carbide and other chemical companies in those years. Rather, as these 1960s ads show, Sevin was touted by Carbide as a broad-spectrum insecticide, pushed to American farmers as a good thing. Sevin was also pitched for use in the home garden, and it was not uncommon to find home gardeners through the 1960s, and even in more recent decades, using Sevin dust on their tomatoes and other vegetables. Beyond American farmers and gardeners, Sevin was also proffered to third world countries as a savior for their insect-ravaged crops. Latin America was targeted first, then India.In India, Carbide offered Sevin as a solution to Indian farmers’ troubles, as their crops were then being regularly ravaged by insects. Sevin would kill any insect, went the pitch, and soon the chemical was embraced as a solution, regarded as something of a “miracle chemical” to improve India’s agricultural prospects. In the process, Union Carbide was seen as a company that would bring beneficial products to India.
By 1962, Union Carbide, in one of its “giant hand” ads (at left), was offering that view in a paternalistic, “Western-know-how- will-help-you” message titled, “Science Helps Build a New India.” The rest of the ad’s text ran as follows:
“Oxen working the fields . . . the eternal river Ganges . . . jeweled elephants on parade. Today these symbols of ancient India exist side by side with a new sight – modern industry. India has developed bold new plans to build its economy and bring the promise of a bright future to its more than 400,000,000 people. But India needs the technical knowledge of the western world. For example, working with Indian engineers and technicians, Union Carbide recently made available its vast scientific resources to help build a major chemicals and plastics plant near Bombay. Throughout the free world, Union Carbide has been actively engaged in building plants for the manufacture of chemicals, plastics, carbons, gases, and metals. The people of Union Carbide welcome the opportunity to use their knowledge and skills in partnership with the citizens of so many great countries.” The ad ends with the sign off: “A Hand in Things To Come / Union Carbide.”
The Bhopal Plant
India by the 1960s had begun to embrace the promise of Green Revolution agriculture – a regimen that used new wheat varieties, heavy fertilization, and chemical pesticides. In 1969 in central India, a few miles from Bhopal, a city of about 900,000 people, a new pesticide plant was built. That year, Union Carbide India, Ltd. (UCIL) — 50.9 percent owned by the Union Carbide Corp.(U.S.) — began producing Sevin and another pesticide, Temik, an aldicarb pesticide.
In manufacturing these pesticides, an intermediate chemical ingredient named methyl isocyanate, or MIC, was used. For the first decade or so, the Bhopal plant imported MIC from a Union Carbide “sister plant” located in Institute, West Virginia.
By the late 1970s, however, the Bhopal plant added its own MIC production unit, with engineering and design based on Carbide’s West Virginia plant.
Normally, during the process of producing the pesticides, MIC, a dangerous gas, was vented and passed through a sodium hydroxide scrubber and flare towers to prevent any problems. But on December 2nd, 1984, something went wrong at the Bhopal plant.
At 11:30 p.m. that night, workers at the Bhopal plant, their eyes tearing and burning, informed their supervisor they had detected a gas release. By 12:45 a.m. a rapid pressure increase occurred inside one of the MIC storage tanks, which opened the safety relief valve, releasing the dangerous methyl isocyanate into the atmosphere. In all, some 40 tons of the gas were released.
Twice as heavy as air, methyl isocyanate remained close to the ground as an escaping gas cloud as it left the plant, rolling southward on light winds. The low-lying, ground-hugging gas cloud was heading toward the eastern flank of a sleeping Bhopal.
MIC is a highly poisonous gas, capable of reacting violently with many substances, including water and some metals. It is also particularly lethal to the eyes and respiratory system.
On December 3rd, 1984, as the gas left the plant, it first hit densely-populated squatter settlements near the plant containing some of Bhopal’s poorest citizens. Thousands were killed in their sleep or as they fled in terror.The gas poured out of the plant for nearly two hours, spreading eight kilometers downwind over the city. Hospitals were overwhelmed in the hours and days that followed.
“No one is counting the numbers any longer,” reported chemical engineer and journalist Praful Bidwai at the Hamidia Hospital three days after the gas release. “People are dying like flies. They are brought in, their chests heaving violently, their limbs trembling, their eyes blinking from the photophobia. It will kill them in a few hours, more usually minutes.”
There were more than 500,000 people in the path of the Union Carbide MIC gas leak at Bhopal. At least 3,000 people are thought to have perished in the first 24 hours. Thousands more died within two weeks. And over the years since the disaster, thousands more succumbed as gas-related diseases took their toll. Additionally, many thousands more were injured or were left with debilitating life-long conditions of one sort or another — 558,125 with some kind of injury by one count.
A 2014 report in Mother Jones magazine, quotes a health clinic spokesperson for Bhopal Medical Appeal, noting that: “An estimated 120,000 to 150,000 survivors still struggle with serious medical conditions including nerve damage, growth problems, gynecological disorders, respiratory issues, birth defects, and elevated rates of cancer and tuberculosis.” However the grim toll of this tragedy is counted, Bhopal remains the worst industrial accident in history.
The repercussions of the disaster would stretch over the next 30 years, and as of this writing they continue. A wide variety of social justice, victims compensation, environmental and other organizations have worked for years to bring fair compensation to the people of Bhopal and its region, among these, the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. Union Carbide and its successors were taken to court and brought before tribunals multiple times and in varying U.S. and Indian jurisdictions.In 1989, the Union Carbide Corporation paid $470 million to settle litigation. That settlement was unsuccessfully challenged by activists in 1990 and 1991, some advocating pursuit of the $3 billion in damages that had been originally proposed. Civil and criminal cases, however, continued to be pursued. In 1994, Union Carbide sold its stake in the Bhopal plant and after some clean up at the site, which remains contaminated from historic practices unrelated to the disaster, it was eventually turned over to the state government of Madhya Pradesh. By 2001, Dow Chemical had completed its acquisition of Union Carbide, and although it had tried to insulate itself from Carbide’s Bhopal liabilities by how it structured the Carbide deal, it too was pursued by Bhopal victims.
In October 2003, U.S. Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and eight other members of Congress filed an amicus brief on behalf of about 20,000 victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster. The brief, initiated by Pallone— a co-founder of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans— came in response to a March 2003 decision by a U.S. District Judge in New York who dismissed all claims against Dow Chemical (although Bhopal victims appealed). Pallone and his colleagues sent a 23-page brief in the appeal case. It urged the court to hold Dow Chemical responsible. “There is strong support in Congress for holding those responsible for this horrific tragedy accountable for their actions,” said Pallone at the time. “It is unacceptable to allow an American company not only the opportunity to exploit international borders and legal jurisdictions, but also the ability to evade civil and criminal liability for environmental pollution and abuses committed overseas.”In June 2010, as result of civil and criminal cases filed in Bhopal, India, seven ex-employees, including the former UCIL chairman, were convicted of causing death by negligence and sentenced to two years imprisonment and a fine of about $2,000 each, the maximum punishment allowed by Indian law. In February 2012, WikiLeaks released a cache of email related to a private U.S. security think tank named Stratfor. It revealed that Dow Chemical had engaged Stratfor to monitor the public and personal lives of activists involved in the Bhopal disaster. As of 2013, a curative petition previously field challenging the earlier $440 million settlement of 1989 was still pending in India’s Supreme Court. In November 2014, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, a historical drama film based on the disaster – A Prayer for Rain starring Martin Sheen – was released. Los Angeles Times critic Martin Tsai called the film “ambitious and shattering,” also noting that “although the real-life events took place three decades ago, the cautionary tale could not be more relevant.”
Back in the mid-1980s, meanwhile, one of the highlighted revelations driven home by the Bhopal incident was that the way pesticide and other chemical products were made – that is, the chemical ingredients and processes used in their manufacture – could be quite dangerous and toxic to workers and nearby communities. Chemical plant safety, in other words, was spotlighted by the Bhopal disaster in a much bigger way than it had been previously. And the risks to public safety weren’t limited to foreign locations with little regulation. In fact, in the U.S. not long after the Bhopal disaster, there was a less serious but no less worrisome incident at a Union Carbide plant that also handled methyl isocyanate.
West Virginia Leak
In the mid-1980s, Union Carbide operated a chemical plant located at Institute, West Virginia, where it also produced methyl isocyanate (MIC) – the same gas that had savaged Bhopal. Carbide officials, however—especially in the aftermath of Bhopal—had promised to focus on safety at all of their facilities. Yet federal investigators in 1985 soon found serious problems at Institute—namely, 190 chemical leaks from the MIC plant in a five-year period. Still, company Chairman Warren Anderson then assured the public that Carbide had gone through the complex “with a fine tooth comb” and had determined the plant was “safe to run.” The company poured millions into the Institute plant to demonstrate its commitment to safety. But at the very place where the company was making its supposed best effort, another mishap occurred.On August 11, 1985, the plant released a toxic gas cloud consisting of aldicarb oxime – a chemical used to make the pesticide Temik – and methylene chloride, a known neurotoxin and suspected animal carcinogen. At least 135 people were sickened by the gas and taken to local hospitals. Described in one account as “a 200-yard-wide cloud of yellowish gas that rolled over the West Virginia towns of Dunbar, Institute, Nitro and St. Albans,” the leak also closed some local roads in the Kanawha River Valley, including Interstate 79 and West Virginia 25, for up to an hour. Some of the stranded motorists complained of a choking and burning sensation from the fumes. Others described it like a rolling fog. Union Carbide officials said the leak occurred because of a valve failure after a buildup of pressure in a storage tank containing the chemical. The incident soon had the attention of Congress and the nation. “Here we had a company that could not operate in a safe fashion even with a public microscope on it,” said U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), then referring to a highly-scrutinized Carbide, post-Bhopal. “It casts doubt on the competence and credibility of the whole industry.”
Given the Bhopal incident, and revelations that American plants weren’t all that safe either, Congress was spurred to action, and soon moved to adopt tougher regulation. The 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act was adopted, establishing the Toxic Release Inventory, which improved citizen access to toxic chemical information in their own communities. EPA reports made clear that the U.S. chemical industry had the capacity and the potential, with the right set of circumstances, to have Bhopal-scale or worse chemical disasters. It also helped to improve state and local emergency planning. And for the next several years, chemical plant safety and toxic release issues remained on the agenda as Congress considered the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. During that debate, EPA reports made clear that the U.S. chemical industry had the capacity and the potential, with the right set of circumstances, to have Bhopal-scale or worse chemical disasters. More emphasis was placed on chemical plant safety at EPA and OSHA, and new programs were adopted. EPA was authorized to develop its Risk Management Program Rule for protection of the public, and OSHA to develop its Process Safety Management Standard to protect workers. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 also established the independent U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which since its creation, has become an important investigative entity, issuing hundreds of accident investigation reports and recommendations for improved chemical plant safety. Still, to this day, many find that national chemical safety oversight is lacking, fraught with basis data gaps, and lacking in meaningful funding.
Sevin SurvivesAs for the pesticide Sevin, the chemical continued to be used for many years. In fact, Union Carbide ads for the insecticide would also appear in later years, though not with the drama of the “big hand” motif. In fact, in 1984, the same year of the Bhopal disaster, but some months before it occurred, a new advertising campaign for Sevin had been authorized by Union Carbide. The Ogilvy & Mather ad agency of Atlanta, Georgia developed a new campaign with a series of print and TV ads that sought to revitalize and reintroduce classic brands. In the case of Sevin, part of the pitch was made to home gardeners and also for lawn, horticultural, and turf uses. And although the Olgilvy & Mather ad shown at right makes Sevin out to be just about one of the safest things you could use in your garden, Sevin had been getting some less-than-flattering internal government reviews about its safety. In fact, as early as 1969, a U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare report recommended that the use of carbaryl “should be immediately restricted to prevent risk of human exposure.” HEW, as it was then known, had seen some studies showing that carbaryl could cause birth defects in mammals. But HEW’s concerns were ignored. By the mid-1970’s EPA, then the primary agency in charge of pesticide registration, decided to review carbaryl in a process known by its acronym, RPAR – for Rebuttable Presumption Against Registration. Under RPAR, when questions arise about the risks of a certain pesticide, the public is permitted to submit evidence to make a case against its continued registration The pesticide manufacturer then has an opportunity to rebut the evidence. If the manufacturer can make that case, the pesticide retains its registration. If they can’t the pesticide is either restricted, taken off the market, or changes are made in allowed uses and its label description and/or warnings. Carbaryl, it seems, was on the road to RPAR in the late 1970s when it was abruptly withdrawn from that process in 1980. Turns out there some working groups from the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Protection that had twice recommended that carbaryl be taken through RPAR, and despite several scientific studies that raised health questions about the chemical, the director of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs decided that there was not enough evidence. Instead, the EPA elected to conduct a review outside of the RPAR process. In 1984, the agency requested two scientific studies on carbaryl and made a few minor changes on its label. Carbaryl was then one of America’s most popular and widely used pesticides, including among some 5 million or more home gardeners, More than 25 million pounds of Sevin were then used annually by all users. The chemical was then present in some 1,500 products used on over 100 crops to control more than 500 insect pests. By 1984, it had been sprayed over hundreds of thousands of acres to battle gypsy moth and was widely used in home gardens to kill Colorado potato beetles and flea beetles. It was also approved for use as a dust to control fleas on cats and dogs. But Warren Schultz Jr., writing an Organic Gardening magazine article in October 1984 titled, “The Trouble With Carbaryl,” called the widely used chemical possibly one of the most dangerous then in use. “You wouldn’t know it from reading the label,”he noted. “The recommendations and precautionary statements [on the label] make Sevin sound about as safe as baby powder. Inspect a canister or bottle of Sevin at the local hardware store, and you won’t find the words ‘Poison’ or even ‘Danger’ anywhere on the package.” That was 1984.
Since then, EPA has made more reviews of carbaryl and Sevin and more restrictions have come on the chemical. In 2003, EPA classified carbaryl as a likely human carcinogen. It is also potentially toxic to the human nervous system, can cause nausea, dizziness, confusion and, at high exposures, respiratory paralysis and death. Young children are particularly vulnerable to carbaryl and other pesticides because their bodies and brains are still developing. In the environment, since it is a broad-spectrum insecticide, carbaryl can kill beneficial insects like honeybees and other pollinators. And when this chemical runs off farms and lawns it can contaminate streams and rivers, where it is toxic to aquatic animals and fish. Yet, at this writing, Sevin and carbaryl are still used on a wide variety of farm and orchard crops including, apples, pecans, grapes, alfalfa, oranges and corn. as well as lawns and gardens. But EPA has been tightening its restrictions. In October 2009, the agency announced that carbaryl will no longer be allowed for use in flea collars. The environmental organization, NRDC, the Natural Resources Defense Council, has called for a total ban on the chemical. “The surest way to protect the American public at large is to ban the use of carbaryl entirely,” says NRDC on its “Smarter Living” page profiling carbaryl. Sevin/carbaryl, meanwhile, has had a product lifetime of more than 50 years, which shows that once chemicals are approved for use, getting them removed from the market is nearly impossible.Carbaryl, of course, in only one of many chemicals in current use. And new chemical compounds for all uses continue to be introduced into global commerce at a rate of about three per day. Yet less that 10 percent of the 100,000 chemicals registered for use in global commerce have had complete toxicological profiles, and most have not been studied in-depth for potential ecological or reproductive effects. More worrisome is the fact that in the last decade or so, more than 500 chemicals – variously labeled “persistent organic pollutants” or “persistent bioaccumulative toxic substances” – have been found in human blood and body tissue. Modern chemistry, it seems, has become an invasive human health concern.
As for Union Carbide’s “giant hand” ads of the 1950s and 1960s – and there was an extensive series of these covering a gamut of Carbide products and industries – they went the way of over-done industrial hype and eventually faded from the advertising pages. However, these Union Carbide ads – among others from the chemical industry in those years – helped create and embed a “chemicals-are-good-for-you” culture, along with the notion that these substances were somehow the handmaidens of progress, vital to the economy, and above reproach or challenge. Rather, the “giant hand” needed today is one of safety assurance from the government, strict chemical oversight, and no chemical harm.
See also at this website, “Power in the Pen,” the story of Rachel Carson’s 1962 best-selling book, Silent Spring, which rocked the chemical industry and helped spur the modern day environmental movement. Additional stories on business & environment issues can be found at the “Business & Money” category page and the “Politics & Culture” page. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please support this website with a donation. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 4 May 2015
Last Update: 4 May 2015
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jack Doyle, “…A Richer Harvest: Union Carbide Ads, 1960s,”
PopHistoryDig.com, May 4, 2015.
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