Monday, July 29, 2013

Warning Labels

Hey, Don't Say They Didn't Warn You . . .
(By Peter Carlson, Washington Post, Sept 2006)

WARNING: Do not read this newspaper while driving a motor vehicle, operating machinery or piloting an aircraft. Do not read newspaper over an open flame. Do not hold newspaper close to face while smoking a cigar the size of a billy club. Do not use newspaper as a flotation device. Newspaper may be harmful if taken internally. Reading newspaper articles may cause irritation, nausea, drowsiness, uncontrollable laughter, weeping, cynicism, confusion, depression or existential despair. Keep out of reach of children.

Okay, you've been warned. Now we can proceed to the article at hand, which is about warning labels.  They're everywhere. Warning labels appear on toothpaste tubes, music CDs, restaurant menus, dog leashes, rented movies, bottles of water, bottles of champagne, bottles of bubble bath and biology textbooks.  Warning labels inform Americans that cigarettes are unhealthy, that coffee is hot, that sleeping pills can cause drowsiness, that Tide laundry detergent is not a good food source, that baking dishes get hot in the oven, that bottles of seltzer "may spray or fizz while opening" and that it is not a good idea to eat the toner used in laser printers.  These days, new inventions beget new warning labels. Many cars feature a computer that displays a map showing how to get from where you are to where you're going. It includes this warning: "Watching this screen while vehicle is in motion can lead to a serious accident."  In the United States, some warning labels are mandated by federal or state law. Others are voluntarily affixed by businesses hoping to educate the public -- or avoid lawsuits.

Warning labels frequently incite legal and political battles. The Senate is currently considering a bill, already passed by the House, that would prevent states from mandating food warning labels that the federal government doesn't require.  In Cobb County, Ga., the school board voted to stick warning labels in biology books: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered." Parents opposed to the stickers sued to remove them, and won. The school board appealed, and the case is still pending.  Meanwhile, a federal court judge recently dismissed a lawsuit by a vegetarian group demanding that milk sold in the District of Columbia carry a label warning that it might harm the lactose-intolerant.  This warning label thing has gone too far, says Robert B. Dorigo Jones. "I've got a fishing lure with three big hooks and a warning label that says, 'Harmful if swallowed,' " he grumbles. 

Dorigo Jones is the author of the forthcoming book "Remove Child Before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever." The book's title derives from a warning label on a baby stroller.  It's just one of many warnings submitted to his annual Wacky Warning Label Contest. This year, first prize went to a heat gun that removes paint by blasting it with air heated to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The warning label said: "Do not use the heat gun as a hair dryer."  Second prize went to the warning label on a kitchen knife: "Never try to catch a falling knife."  Third prize went to a cocktail napkin decorated with a map of the seacoast of Hilton Head, S.C., and a warning: "Caution: Not to be used for navigation."  Among the honorable mentions was the warning on a bottle of dried bobcat urine used to keep rodents away from garden plants: "Not for human consumption."  "Warning labels are a sign of our lawsuit-plagued times," says Jones, who is president of Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch. "Because of the unpredictability of the legal system, companies feel that they have to warn against the obvious. And it has the opposite effect -- fewer people read these warning labels because they're getting longer and more absurd. "

"Warning labels can be traced back to biblical times," says Bruce Silverglade.  He cites the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 11, which identifies the meat of pigs, shellfish, camels and, alas, badgers as "unclean." He also cites Chapter 19, which states that eating meat left over for more than two days is "an abomination."  Silverglade is kidding, sort of. He's the legal director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that loves warning labels. CSPI is currently lobbying for a label on soda to warn potential drinkers that guzzling it will make you fat and rot your teeth.  Aside from Leviticus, the history of warning labels is fairly short. In 1938 Congress passed a law mandating that food products carry a list of ingredients. In 1973 Congress voted to require labels on products containing "toxic substances." The law created three levels of warnings: "Caution" for stuff that's a little scary, "Warning" for stuff that's more scary, and "Danger!" for stuff that you definitely don't want to serve to guests at a formal dinner party.  Meanwhile, in 1966, the feds mandated that cigarette packs carry a warning from the surgeon general. And in 1989, alcoholic beverages got their own surgeon general's warning.  In 1985, in a series of congressional hearings that received more publicity than a Super Bowl, Tipper Gore, wife of then-Sen. Al Gore, testified in favor of a bill to put warning labels on pop music albums containing sexually explicit or violent lyrics. Before action could be taken, 22 record companies agreed to label the offending albums with stickers that say, "Parental Warning Explicit Content." Since then, innumerable hormone-addled teenagers have looked for the sticker when seeking music guaranteed to drive their parents batty.

Today, several federal agencies are in the warning label business: the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and, of course, the FBI, whose warnings against video piracy have appeared on rented movies since 1975. All of these agencies take their job very seriously.  "We held hearings and took testimony from experts," says Pamela Gilbert, who was the executive director of the CPSC in the 1990s. "We used the state of the art in the science of labeling."  Under her leadership, Gilbert says proudly, the commission mandated that bags of charcoal carry a label warning people not to burn the stuff indoors, which can kill you.  "A lot of people were bringing [charcoal grills] indoors to keep their families warm," Gilbert says. "Many of them were immigrants who didn't speak English, so we mandated a picture."  Now, the warning on bags of charcoal includes three pictures -- charcoal burning in a house, in a tent, in a trailer -- all of them surrounded by a circle with a line through it, the universal symbol for "Don't even think about doing this."  Those pictures deliver their message effectively but, Gilbert admits, they're not nearly as memorable as a warning symbol so old that nobody seems to know when or how it originated -- the skull and crossbones. 

"I have a 6-year-old kid, and he knows that a skull-and-crossbones means poison," Gilbert says. "It's a fairly effective warning. Nobody would drink something with a skull-and-crossbones on it." She pauses, then says, "Unless they wanted to kill themselves."  Indeed, at least one lonely, despondent fellow did use the skull & crossbones symbol to identify a substance that would help him kill himself. That fellow was Billy Joel, back in the early '70s, before Joel became a rock star. He was depressed because his girlfriend had dumped him and his band had broken up. He decided to end it all.  "I looked into the closet and there was chlorine bleach, with that skull-and-crossbones warning," Joel told Blender magazine a few years ago. "And there was some furniture polish, with a smaller skull-and-crossbones. So it really came down to a matter of flavor."  Joel opted for the furniture polish. But it failed to kill the future author of "Only the Good Die Young." It did, however, cause a very unpleasant bout of flatulence, a malady the warning label had failed to mention. Maybe Joel should have sued.

We are living in the Golden Age of the Warning Label.  It began in 1992, when Stella Liebeck, then 81, bought a cup of coffee at a McDonald's drive-thru window in Albuquerque. As she wedged the cup between her legs and removed its cap, her grandson drove off. The coffee spilled, causing third-degree burns to her legs. She sued McDonald's, and a jury awarded her almost $3 million. (After appeals, the company settled with Liebeck for an undisclosed sum.)  That verdict, which got more publicity than the Super Bowl and Tipper Gore combined, persuaded McDonald's and other coffee vendors to put labels on coffee cups warning that hot coffee is hot.  After that, the floodgates burst. Terrified of lawsuits, American businessmen began plastering their products with labels that belabored the obvious. 

For example, the sage advice on a package of Dr. Scholl's socks: "Please be cautious as socks can be slippery when walking without shoes."  Or the car commercials on TV in which vehicles swoop through the air or suddenly brake inches from a pedestrian, as small print at the bottom of the screen says, "Do not attempt."  The baking dish that warned: "Ovenware will get hot when used in oven." The toilet brush that warned: "Do not use for personal hygiene."  But not all the new labels warned of dangers that were absurdly obvious. Some warned of dangers that were absurdly bizarre.  Listerine mouthwash, for a while, carried this warning: "Do not swallow. In case of accidental overdose, seek professional assistance or contact a poison control center immediately."  Crest toothpaste warned: "If more than used for brushing is accidentally swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away."  And jars of Metamucil bear this warning: "Taking this product without adequate fluid may cause it to swell and block your throat or esophagus and may cause choking."  (Have you ever attended the funeral of somebody who OD'd on Listerine or choked on Metamucil? Me, neither. Obviously, these warnings are working.)

American magazines have swelled with prescription drug ads that include FDA-mandated warnings about possible side effects. These ads are delightfully two-faced. On the front, in big bold letters, are lyrical paeans to the drug's miraculous healing powers. On the back, in type the size of nits, are endless lists of "adverse events," the industry's euphemism for side effects.  Some of these side effects are obvious: Lunesta, a sleeping pill, can cause "drowsiness."  Some are ironic: Advair, an asthma medicine, can cause "severe asthma episodes."  Some are scary: Celebrex, an arthritis medicine, can cause heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure and asthma attacks, among other maladies.  Some are just plain weird: Toprol-XL, a hypertension medicine, can cause "mental confusion" and "depression progressing to catatonia." Lunesta can cause "strange behavior" and "unusual and/or disturbing thoughts." And Caduet, a drug for high blood pressure, can inspire "abnormal dreams."

Inevitably, the plague of warnings led to a plethora of parodies. Slurpee cups at 7-Eleven were stamped "Warning: Brain freeze may occur." Adventures Unlimited, a catalogue of books on Atlantis, UFOs and conspiracy theories, comes with this label: "Warning! The contents of the Adventures Unlimited catalog can be hazardous to your belief system." An ad for an album by the band Future Pigeon says, "Warning: Contains high amounts of corrosive dub music. Capable of crippling speaker bins, sound systems and brain matter."  Intellectuals got into the act, too. The Journal of Irreproducible Results, a humor magazine for scientists, published a series of warning labels inspired by the laws of physics:  "Warning: This Product Warps Space and Time in Its Vicinity," and "Handle with Extreme Care: This Product Contains Minute Electrically-Charged Particles Moving at Velocities in Excess of Five Hundred Miles per Hour."  Go ahead, laugh. Maybe it will make you feel better. But the grim truth is this: The human body is a frail vessel, and the world is full of stuff that can cut, bruise, break, smash, crash, shatter, batter, mangle, maim, mutilate, poison, sicken and kill it. Sooner or later, one of them will get you.  Consider yourself warned.


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