Hey, Don't Say They Didn't Warn You . . .

Warning Sign
(Tom Nick Cocotos for The Washington Post)
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 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. And one warning label -- a sticker saying "Warning: This House Protected by Electronic Alarm System" -- is sold for 50 cents to homeowners too cheap to shell out for a real electronic alarm system.

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. The debate inspired one environmental group, which opposed the bill, to give every House member a bottle of Pepto-Bismol with a fake warning label that read: "H.R. 4167 side effects may include vomiting, diarrhea, birth defects, cancer and worse."

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.

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