Earlier this year, consumers were reminded of the necessity of issuing stern and obvious warnings about misapplication of common household items. That’s when children around the country were getting sick in increasing numbers after biting into Tide Pods, the globs of laundry detergent that became a test of an adolescent’s gastronomic courage. Both Procter & Gamble, makers of the pods, and consumer agencies warned against the practice, adding to a long list of cautions issued by manufacturers and state or federal agencies over the years.
Ironically, plastering warnings over everything may actually make us less safe, as consumers tend to overlook the risk of handling truly dangerous items while under the deluge of cautions. Have a look at some of the more perplexing products that have had to explain to consumers what not to do with them.
1. DON’T BURN CHARCOAL INDOORS.
If a manufacturer doesn’t feel the need to caution consumers about misuse of their product, various consumer advocates can step in. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) can mandate warning labels where necessary. In the 1990s, their concern was aimed at bags of charcoal, which were required to warn users not to burn the item indoors. The resulting smoke and lack of ventilation can, of course, cause death. In 2006, former CPSC executive director Pamela Gilbert told The Seattle Times that the warning—which came in the form of an illustrated man burning charcoal indoors with a line over it to indicate it was a bad idea—was the result of people not realizing it was an unsafe practice. “A lot of people were bringing [charcoal grills] indoors to keep their families warm,” Gilbert said. Today, charcoal distributors like Kingsford warn consumers to “never barbeque indoors.”
2. DON’T REUSE CONDOMS.
Even the most sexually inexperienced among us can likely manage to open and don a prophylactic to reduce the chances of disease transmission. However, not all of us appear to be capable of throwing it out after it has served its single-use purpose. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued an alert reminding people that condoms cannot be washed and saved for future application. In addition to being absolutely disgusting, recycling condoms can increase the likelihood of breakage—soap weakens latex—and risks re-exposure to infectious materials present on the surface. “We say it because people do it,” the CDC tweeted. Who admitted to this and how remains a mystery.
3. DON’T CONSUME THE IPOD SHUFFLE.
Do you like to eat your expensive electronics devices? You might have pica, or the urge to devour the inedible. That may have been on Apple’s mind when their legal department decided to urge buyers of their iPod Shuffle not to swallow the unit. Measuring just 1.8 inches by 0.7 inches and weighing .38 ounces, the music player was apparently small enough to be considered a choking hazard. Intrigued by the prospect, Gizmodo asked sword swallower Heather Holliday to attempt to swallow the device in 2009. It proved virtually impossible, as the iPod was too light to force down with her esophageal muscles and too unwieldy to gulp by accident.
4. THE HAIR DRYER SCOURGE.
Hair dryers have long been the most maligned of small appliances, with cord labels admonishing users not to use while bathing or sleeping. Underwriters Laboratories, a nonprofit that tests products and recommends safety standards for manufacturers, told The New York Times in 1988 that such tags were needed because most polled adults believed that hair dryers were safe to leave near water, even if they were plugged in, as long as they were turned off. (This is not the case.) Roughly 110 deaths and 50 injuries were reported between 1977 and 1982 as a result of consumers knocking the dryers into standing water. Thanks to the warnings and improved safety measures—like a switch cutting power once the appliance is immersed—the mortality rate of blow-dried victims fell to just one in 2000.
5. A FEDERAL WARNING TO STOP READING KIDS’ BOOKS.
The boogey-mineral of our times, lead has long occupied the attention of consumer advocate agencies. (Ingestion during childhood has been associated with neurological issues.) That concern stretched to the banning of lead in printing ink in 1986 and later extended to a nationwide word of caution from the CPSC in 2009 that librarians and parents should try to keep books printed prior to the ban out of the hands of children. Tots gumming the affected books could, conceivably, ingest the lead in the ink. The CPSC later walked back their comments, while the Centers for Disease Control estimated that a kid ingesting part of The Cat in the Hat was “like a 0.5 level of concern” on a scale of one to 10.
6. A TOY CAPE DOES NOT ENABLE YOU TO FLY.
Children can often have a gross misunderstanding of consequences. But has a child ever been so lost in the grip of fantasy that they’ve scaled a building and jumped off on the assumption that a superhero costume would give them the ability to fly? Apparently, toy industry lawyers believed so. In 1997, The New York Times observed that a Batman play costume came with the following warning: “FOR PLAY ONLY: Mask and chest plate are not protective; cape does not enable user to fly.”
7. THE SUPER SLED THAT MAIMS.
Personal injury cases can frighten corporate attorneys to the point where they will leave nothing open to chance. While marketing their Snow Works Super Boggan sled in 1997, Empire Industries opted to put so many warning labels on the sled that they practically obscured the item itself. Among the cautions: always wear a helmet; don’t allow more than three riders; don’t ride on your stomach; avoid obstacles; don’t use near streets. Most importantly, be aware that “this product does not have brakes.” Empire Industries senior vice president Howard Younger told The New York Times that the warnings were generated after studying sled-related accident statistics.
8. THE SERIOUS RISK OF KEYBOARDS.
During the personal computing explosion of the early 1990s, consumers were apparently caught unaware of the significant health hazards posed by keyboards. Too much typing led to repetitive strain injuries and soft-tissue swelling, prompting some people to file lawsuits against manufacturers like Compaq. To stave off litigation, Compaq and Microsoft added warnings to their keyboards in 1994, directing users to review their safety and comfort instructional manual. Later, concern turned to keyboard cleaners—those cans of compressed air marketed as a way to blow out crumbs and other debris. Teenagers huffed the inhalant in a practice called “dusting,” forcing Dust-Off to increase the size of its product label warning.
In some cases, lying works just as well. When attorney Victor Schwartz was asked to try and remedy household cleaner inhalant injury claims in the 1980s, he decided not to enlarge the warning, which might make kids believe there was more propellant in the can. Instead, he directed manufacturers to say that misuse could cause facial disfigurement. Kids stopped huffing the products.