Healing Our World Commentary: Warning Labels

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

Warning Labels Are Not Enough

No politics, song, religion, behavior, or what not,
is of account, unless it compare with the
amplitude of the earth.
Unless it face the exactness, vitality, impartiality,
Rectitude of the Earth.

-- Walt Whitman

The approach taken by government regulators and politicians to mitigate environmental and other health hazards is usually to identify the harmful material or practice in question and to post a warning label. If we are lucky, a multi-year phase out plan will be presented that keeps the toxic substances in the marketplace or continues the dangerous practices for the sake of business profits.


A warning sign in a potted plant at the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant in Los Angeles (All photos (c) J.A. Giuliano)
This strategy has been putting people at great risk for years for the sake of the profit of a few and should not be allowed. Unfortunately, the new conservative regime in the United States is likely to continue this approach for quite some time.

We see warning labels and signs often. They have become a part of our lives and part of our culture, often to be made fun and ignored. At best, we will look at them and feel guilty, afraid, and usually powerless.

California has created a sign that millions of workers see each day when they go to work or even when they go somewhere to play that says "Warning: This facility contains one or more chemicals known to the state to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm."

Mandated by the passage of Proposition 65 a few years ago, this sign has saved business and industry millions of dollars while risking the lives of millions every day.

It is an amazingly clever approach if you are trying to maximize your profit regardless of the human cost. Instead of having to clean up a problem that could kill people, all you have to do is post this sign. Then it becomes the individual's responsibility if they choose to enter the area. Few people will have the financial resources to mount a legal challenge. Wow! Whoever thought of that must have gotten a big fat raise that year.

I can tell you that the voters of California did not think that's what they were mandating when they passed this legislation. I was living in California at the time, and it was presented very differently to the people.

When you see this sign on the way to work, what can you do? Can you refuse to go to work? Sure, but at great risk to your job. Can you get you doctor to check you out? No, not unless you have a rather progressive insurance company who will pay for very expensive tests.

You can certainly increase your anxiety level each day you enter the office, worrying in the back of your mind if you are being harmed - or your unborn child, or your nursing child, or family members from toxic materials on your clothing and skin. Most states don't even require the posting of a sign when hazardous materials are known to be in the building.


Storm water runoff warning
At California beaches, every half mile or so you will often encounter a sign that reads "Warning: Storm drain water may cause illness. No swimming." The warning is repeated in Spanish. I have often seen this sign posted in front of a lifeguard tower where swimmers were directed right into the path of the storm water to keep them away from surfers.

Just what are people to do with this information? Surely the beach wouldn't be open if there were problems, would it? If you have just traveled thousands of miles to the beaches of sunny California, are you going to tell you kids that they can't go in to the water? What about the people in other cities who don't understand that storm drains carry water that contains the toxic chemicals, pesticides, and other poisons that lie on our streets, parking lots, and lawns?

But this is a very clever sign! The city can continue to ignore the fact that people who swim in storm water runoff get sick, some with life threatening illnesses. After all, they were warned, weren't they? And chances are they will never make the connection between their illness and that innocent swim.

A common sign at coastal recreation areas in Seattle warns visitors that "eating shellfish or crabs from this beach may make you sick."

Another way of phrasing this could be "we, your leaders, know that our inaction is resulting in polluted waters filled with toxic substances are so deeply imbedded in the ecosystem that eating the fish could harm you and your children. But we are posting this clever sign to put the responsibility on you so we don't have to do anything. Aren't we smart?"


A common sign around Seattle coastal areas with the warning in eight languages
So many of us have been brought up to believe that if you feel generally OK and aren't vomiting, you are probably OK. And many people believe that we are not supposed to feel great all the time anyway, and that feeling ill or lacking energy or having a runny nose are just part of the game. Many have also been taught that we aren't qualified to know how we feel or what is affecting us. After all, isn't the doctor supposed to do that?

Our food is filled with warnings. Most meat carries a label warning of bacteria that could cause illness and warns you to keep it separate from other foods and to wash down anything it has come into contact with. What this label really should say is - the U.S. food supply is terribly polluted because factory farmed animals are butchered under deplorable conditions, the meat is handled poorly, and it is stored in substandard conditions that creates a dangerous product by the time it gets to market.

Have you been enjoying the new fat free potato chips with Olestra, a new oil that carries the warning label about abdominal cramping, loose stools, and the loss of vitamins and other nutrients from your body?


Product label for a food containing the fat substitute, Olestra
One of my favorite warnings is printed periodically in the "Los Angeles Times" by the Boeing Aircraft Company in Long Beach, California. It shows a nebulous map of a fairly large area and says, "The Boeing facility listed below emits chemicals that are known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. Persons living within the approximate area outlined in the map below are exposed to these substances."

That's it. They have done their duty. They don't have to clean up. They are done!

What a different world we would live in if we all took the threats to our health seriously and refused to let the government pass the buck.

What if every worker who saw the sign warning of birth defects if they entered a building refused to go in until the problems were resolved? What if every tourist and visitor to a beach refused to return or to patronize any business in the area until the water was cleaned up? What if everyone refused to buy any food with labels that suggested our health would be threatened?

The responsibility for cleaning up our world must be shared, but trying to convince us that it is our problem that buildings are filled with toxic substances and that our food supply is tainted because profit is given a priority over public health is the worst form of deception.


1. Flex your activist muscles at the following websites where you can voice your opinion:

2. Learn about a NASA study that found many common house plants can help clean your indoor air of toxic substances at: http://www.zone10.com/wsdocs/tech/NASA/fyh.htm

3. Buy an electromagnetic radiation meter and monitor your environment at: http://www.maui.net/~emf/TriField.html

4. Keep track of food issues at: http://www.purefood.org/index.htm

5. Find out who your Congressional representatives are and e-mail them. Demand that they do more to protect our health. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html or you can search by state at http://www.webslingerz.com/jhoffman/congress-email.html. You can also find your representatives at http://congress.nw.dc.us/innovate/index.html.

[Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle. He can be found marveling at all the warnings we are given in our world and wondering if anything is safe. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his web site at http://www.healingourworld.com]