In a 1970s public service announcement for poison control, an exaggeratedly deep voice chants: “Mr. Yuk is mean. Mr. Yuk is green… Get to know his face, in every single place.” And the world has done just that. Since his inception in 1971 by Dr. Richard Moriarty of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Mr. Yuk’s scowling green face has become an internationally recognized icon. Mr. Yuk was the first standardized warning icon for poisons and has had a huge impact on households everywhere.
Mr. Yuk was created as part of a greater movement to promote awareness for poisonous substances in the household, in order to prevent dangers to children. In 1970, the United States passed the Poison Prevention Packaging Act (PPPA). Section V of the Act reads:
The Act provides that certain household products… which are found to be hazardous or potentially hazardous must be sold in safety packaging. This safety packaging must be designed so that most children under five years of age cannot open the packages.
The PPPA highlighted several specific household products, including oral prescription drugs, furniture/appliance cleaners, and lighter fluid.
Safety packaging for children below the age of five, however, was not enough. Since older children could easily figure out push-to-open caps, further steps needed to be taken to keep children away from hazardous household materials.
In 1971, the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh opened its first poison center and hired Dr. Richard Moriarty as the director. Dr. Moriarty’s mission was to promote poison awareness, and quickly set out to create a standardized symbol to place directly on hazardous products—something children would notice immediately and know to avoid. The standard logo at the time was a skull-and-crossbones, but surveys showed that this logo carried positive connotations for children. It reminded them of pirates and adventure—especially in Moriarty’s area, where children saw the logo every time they saw a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game.
Moriarty decided to consult a public relations firm for ideas. Together they talked to preschoolers and asked them what they knew about poison. The children said things like, “Poison can kill you,” and “Poison can make you sick.” They showed children icons of stop signs, skull-and-crossbones, sick faces, yelling faces, and death faces. They also compared a variety of fluorescent colors including orange, green, yellow and pink. The children chose fluorescent green and the sick face as the scariest combination. The final logo was created by Wendy Brown, a fourth grader from West Virginia, in a design contest held by the Pittsburgh Poison Control Center. When one of the kids called her label “yucky,” Mr. Yuk was born. He had been created by children, for children.
Mr. Yuk stickers were to be placed on poisonous substances such as medicine bottles, cleaning supplies, and other household chemicals. The Poison Center hotline was listed on the bottom of each sticker. Poison Centers are now located all over the country, and provide 24-hour assistance for persons who have questions about poisons or who ingest dangerous substances.
After the creation of Mr. Yuk, the effort to protect children from harmful objects continued. In 1972, the Consumer Product Safety Act created the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC took over enforcement of the PPPA from the Food and Drug Administration, and reserved the right to recall products that present a substantial hazard. An article published in 1974 by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune shows one example of the impact the CPSC had on the nation: “The nation’s 55,000 pharmacists will have to put most oral prescription drugs in childproof containers.”
Companies have also adapted their own products to help protect children. Childproofing household areas include electrical, kitchens, bathroom, bedroom, and outdoor safety. Products can range from outlet covers, cabinet locks and latches, stove knob covers, non-slip bath mats, and carbon-monoxide monitors. The Home Safety Council is dedicated to preventing home-related injuries and educating people of all ages to be safer in and around their homes, and widens the scope of the household safety movement that birthed Mr. Yuk.
Today, Mr. Yuk’s impact on poison awareness has been recognized worldwide. According to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Mr. Yuk stickers have been distributed throughout America, Europe, and Asia, totaling over 42 million each year. Mr. Yuk stickers are given away at many pharmacies, and the Washington Poison Center distributes them to anyone who calls. The Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh encourages people to mail them for free sheets of stickers. Some producers of hazardous materials include Mr. Yuk right on their labels.
An article appearing in The Miami Post in 1977 stated, “Between 1,000 and 5,000 children under 5 years of age die each year of accidental poisoning nationwide.” However, an annual report in 2008 posted by the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported only 34 deaths in children under the age of six due to accidental poisoning. This represents a dramatic decline in child deaths due to unintentional poisoning—a decline that owes a significant gratitude to Mr. Yuk.
“People need to understand that accidental poisonings can happen in an instant. It only takes a moment for a child to be accidentally poisoned, so all caretakers must know who to call in a poisoning emergency,” said Edward P. Krenzelok, PharmD, Director of the Pittsburgh Poison Control Center since 1983. The warning is just as much for the parent as it is for the child. And if parents have to put the stickers on the substances themselves, they are more likely to be aware of these dangers and place them out of reach of their children.
A recent federal study reported that 3 out of 4 Americans immediately recognize Mr. Yuk’s face. This awareness is largely due to use of the logo outside the realm of hazardous materials. Mr. Yuk flash cards, theme songs, and educational materials have been used to educate children of Mr. Yuk’s cause and the importance behind it. Other products have been created such as t-shirts and wristbands to promote awareness.
Mr. Yuk has even surpassed his practical purposes to become a unique cultural icon. Mr. Yuk has a cult following at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, for example—the CMU Ultimate Frisbee team is named “Mr. Yuk,” and their B team is known as “Harmful if Swallowed.” The symbol has been featured jokingly in popular video games Call of Duty 2: Modern Warfare and Civilization IV. The now-famous Mr. Yuk PSA from the 70s has spawned several remixes and spoofs on Youtube. And as of November 2010, Mr. Yuk’s Facebook page has 18,682 fans.
Some political analysts worry, however, that the poison control movement that Mr. Yuk helped to begin is hurting. In a 2009 article titled “The Poisoned Bill,” Potomac Chronicle columnist Donald F. Kettl points out cuts in the budgets for Michigan and Washington’s poison centers, and then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to completely cut the state’s $6 million contribution to its four poison-control centers. And according to Stuart E. Heard, executive director of the California Poison Control System, “Many poison centers are poorly funded and on the brink.” Since three-fourths of poison-related inquiries are handled on the phone, the downfall of poison-control centers could be a huge problem for household safety. As Kettl says, “Mr. Yuk lives on, but the poison-control system that stands behind him is in trouble.”
The Center would like to thank the Pittsburgh Poison Center at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Foundation, and the Western Pennsylvania History journal for their assistance in illustrating this article.