Warning: Do not read this newspaper while driving a motor vehicle, operating machinery or piloting an aircraft. Do not read newspaper over...
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 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.
OK, 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, restaurant menus, dog leashes, bottles of water, bottles of champagne, bottles of bubble bath and biology textbooks.
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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.
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.
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.”
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 Dorigo 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. “
Thou shalt not drink bleach
“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 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, 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.”
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 lid, 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 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 businesses 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.”
Warnings like those provided Dorigo Jones with fodder for this book. 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.