October 09, 2007

Warning labels and recalls: are we protected?

We've all seen the recent spate of media ads for various types of pharmaceutical products. First they tell us how wonderful their products are and then they warn us about a series of possible bad side effects, some of which are downright frightening. Warning about a product they're trying to convince us to buy may seem like an odd strategy, but they're required to warn us and it's doubtful that they'd do so otherwise. But does this make us feel protected and safe? Eric Lipton's New York Times story summarizes the plight of a product that has so far attracted 31 product liability lawsuits.

The product in the news is called Stand 'n Seal, a fast way to seal grout around tiles in kitchens and bathrooms. It has been reported that two consumers have died and at least 80 others have been sickened after using this sealer. Shouldn't the Consumer Product Safety Commission's recall some two years ago have stopped this carnage? Shouldn't retailers have kept the 300,000 recalled cans of this product off their shelves? Even more important, shouldn't the product have been tested before all this happened? And how effective is the warning label on the can?

There's plenty of blame to go around here, starting with the Consumer Product Safety Commission iteself. Lipton observes it is "too overwhelmed with reports of injuries and with new hazards to comprehensively investigate and follow up on many complaints." Its laboratory is out of date and doesn't have the proper equipment to evaluate products. Like many bureaucracies these days, it's underfunded and understaffed (so much for alleged waste and fraud in bureaucracies). Even worse is the fact that the US does not require premarket testing of such products. The chairperson of the CPS commission says she's proud of the way her agency gets the consumer informed by recalling dangerous products. But apparently consumers have to be sickened or die before this can happen.

The role of linguistics in product liability cases is usually to focus on the warning labels on the products. I haven't been able to get my hands on a can of Stand 'n Seal yet but some parts of what it says have appeared in various articles about the case. The label proclaims that it "evaporates harmlessly" and in small letters says, "avoid breathing vapors" and "make sure room is well ventilated." In cases such as this I would expect the plaintiffs to compare this with the requirements listed on the Material Safety Data Sheet for Grout Cleaners. One does not find "avoid breathing vapors" there. Instead, it advocates the use of a strong directive, "do not breathe vapors." The semantic difference between "avoid" and "do not" should play a role here. The Materials Safety Data Sheet also says that this product, which is made with an aerosol chemical spray that contains Flexipel, should not be used "in restricted areas with poor ventilation." This may seem similar to the wording on Stand 'n Seal's label, "make sure the room is well ventilated," but the MSDS goes on to say that consumers should use an "approved cartridge respirator" and possibly use air scrubbers to prevent exhaust air from contaminating the environment. This advice does not appear on the warning label of Stand 'n Seal. In fact, the advertisements show a drawing of a man wearing no mask while he is spraying the floor.

Linguists who address the problems of warning labels in product liability cases have described the discourse structure  that an effective and readable warning should contain, including a description of the nature of the hazard, the danger of the risk, ways that the consumer can avoid the risk, all in a text written in clear, simple, clear language that the consumer can easily and quickly understand. This language should capture the attention of the reader, be understandable to the ordinary person, be direct and explicit, and be visibly readable and comprehensible. Linguistic issues all.

It's notable that those pharmaceutical ads I mentioned above seem to be able to describe the risks of the product in language that the ordinary person can easily comprehend. From all I can tell, they sell the stuff anyway. So being clear and explicit may not be all that damaging to manufacturers, even those who produce grout cleaners. And a clear and readable warning label can usually protect  them from product liability lawsuits like this one.

Posted by Roger Shuy at October 9, 2007 10:05 AM