In response, the Consumer Product Safety Commission did what it has rarely done before. It gave up on the warnings and proposed an outright ban.
The push last month to take this category of BB-sized magnets off the market signals a broader rethinking of an approach that Washington has long relied on to flag the hazards of everything from cigarettes to plastic bags.
The agency also successfully pushed for a recall of 4 million Bumbo baby seats last month after concluding that the warnings on those chairs did not adequately prevent the seats from being used in ways that could result in children falling and injuring themselves.
“What you’re getting into now is as much about the agency’s philosophy on how to deal with risk as it is about safety,” said Mike Gidding, a former CPSC attorney who specializes in product safety cases.
CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum said she’s steering the agency in a new direction by trying to prevent deaths instead of just reacting to them. “I have made it clear to our staff that all of our regulatory options should be on the table when we seek to protect consumers from harm,” Tenenbaum said in a statement.
Some of the earliest federally mandated warnings came in 1927 when Congress passed a law requiring “poison” labels on household products containing certain caustic or corrosive substances, according to a report by Exponent Failure Analysis Associates, a consulting firm. Warnings on drugs, medical devices and cosmetics followed a decade later.
But a warnings boom took place in the 1960s, giving rise to some of today’s most familiar labels, the report said. That’s when words like “danger” and “flammable” and “keep out of reach of children” started appearing on entire categories of products with hazardous substances. It’s also the decade that Congress mandated warnings for cigarettes.
Today, warnings are so pervasive that they’ve become a nearly meaningless safety tool in some areas, more useful in protecting manufacturers against legal liability than in guarding consumers from harm, according to David Egilman, a clinical professor at Brown University’s family medicine department who has researched industry’s influence on warnings.
“If everything you pick up has a warning on it, you’re going to instinctively ignore all warnings,” Egilman said. “That’s the real problem.”
It’s the classic “cry wolf” situation, said Richard Thompson, a psychology and biological sciences professor at the University of Southern California. People exposed to the same stimulus without consequences are less likely to pay attention, he said.