Union Carbide

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  • Founded: 1917

  • Years Operated: 1917-2001

  • Headquarters: Houston, Texas

  • Business: Manufactured chemicals including industrial gases, Calidria chrysotile asbestos and ethylene-based chemicals.

  • Asbestos Trust: No

  • Bankruptcy Status: Not bankrupt

History

Union Carbide was established in 1917 as Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation. The ethylene producer and purchaser filed its first patent to prepare the chemical in 1919. In 1920, the company established Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Corporation. Shortly after, the company opened the first commercial ethylene plant in Clendenin, West Virginia. This marked the beginning of the petrochemical industry.

The Clendenin commercial plant manufactured a variety of ethylene-based chemicals such as ethylene glycol, which was used for automotive antifreeze.

Between 1920 and 1957, Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation continued to grow. It merged with Bakelite Corporation and began a lucrative chemical production business in Texas. The company also purchased Plant Institute, which was a plant the company operated at the start of World War II for the U.S. government. The plant produced butadiene and styrene. In 1957, the company became Union Carbide Corporation and proceeded to grow and pursue various acquisitions and business opportunities.

Union Carbide became a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company on February 6, 2001 during a transaction valued at $11.6 billion.

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Litigation & Specific Lawsuits

Asbestos-related personal injury claims have been filed by individuals that were exposed to asbestos in Union Carbide plants from 1945 to 1980 and to the company’s products containing Calidria chrysotile asbestos from 1964 to 1972.

Union Carbide was ordered to pay millions of dollars in asbestos claims. Many have been settled but some remain unpaid. Because of the latency period of asbestos-related disease, many more will likely be filed in the future.

Unlike other companies that produce asbestos, Union Carbide has not set up a trust for claims or filed for bankruptcy. The companies have decided instead to continue to defend themselves in court against current and future claims.

On June 14, 2012 a jury in Los Angeles awarded $48 million dollars to a California plaintiff and his wife; $37.5 million of that verdict is to be paid by Union Carbide. The plaintiff worked with many of Union Carbide’s asbestos-containing products as a general contractor in the 1960s and ‘70s and was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2011.

During the trial, one key piece of evidence was a 1967 Union Carbide internal memo that proved the company knew that asbestos exposure caused cancer. An attorney for Union Carbide claims the company, “clearly did not cause [the plaintiff’s] disease,” and “the verdict in this case is outrageous and unsupported by the facts.”

An attorney for Parex USA, Inc., another named defendant in the case, commented that the jury “was being ruled by passion and prejudice. There was little evidence that [the plaintiff’s] quality of life has been affected so far, other than the fact he knew he had cancer.”

Because asbestos-related disease does not develop for 20 to 50 years or more after exposure, the company will continue to receive lawsuit claims for injuries ranging from asbestosis to lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Industry & Occupations

Union  Carbide has 2,400 employees in seven locations across the United States. Since  Union Carbide’s acquisition by TDCC, Union Carbide sells most of the products  it manufactures to TDCC. According to the official Union Carbide website, the  company primarily produces chemicals and polymers that undergo one or more  further conversions by customers before reaching consumers.

Union  Carbide products were used in the following industries:

The main asbestos product manufactured by Union Carbide is Calidria chrysotile asbestos. The company mined and milled Calidria near King City, California in the 1960s. Reportedly, its own scientists indicated that Calidria asbestos caused more damage to the lungs of rats than other types of asbestos.

Union Carbide officials knew that any health effects from asbestos would not surface for up to 50 years. In one internal memo, Union Carbide officials decided to “make hay while the sun shines” and seize the opportunity for profit before the public learned about the effects of this toxic product.

Products

Union Carbide manufactured Calidria chrysotile asbestos. It sold this product to other companies who used it in products including cement, paint, sheet packing and household products.

Union Carbide & the Bhopal Disaster

On December 3, 1984, a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India leaked toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas into the air. In a few hours, almost 4,000 people died along with hundreds of animals in the streets surrounding the plant. It was later discovered that the gas leak safety system had been off for three months prior.  In the days following the initial gas leak, 10,000 more people died, and as many as 20,000 premature deaths occurred in the next two decades. Over half a million people suffered from permanent disabilities as a result of the gas leak. The Indian Supreme Court mediated a settlement with Union Carbide and forced them to pay $470 million.

Additional Resources

  1. Bernstein, D. M., Chevalier, J. & Smith, P. (2005). Comparison of Calidria chrysotile asbestos to pure tremolite: final results of the inhalation biopersistence and histopathology examination following short-term exposure. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16020039
  2. Bronstad, A. (2012). $48M asbestos verdict is the largest this year. Retrieved from http://www.dailyreportonline.com/PubArticleDRO.jsp?id=1202560877195&thepage=1
  3. Broughton, E. (2005). The Bhopal disaster and its aftermath: a review. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1142333/
  4. Girion, L. (2004). Case Hinges on material witness. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2004/sep/26/business/fi-carbide26
  5. National Public Radio (NPR). (2006). Silicosis: From public menace to litigation target. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5247882
  6. Union Carbide. (2012). History. Retrieved from http://www.unioncarbide.com/history

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