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Am J Public Health. 2013 May;103(5):801-12. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2012.301066. Epub 2013 Mar 14.

Poison politics: a contentious history of consumer protection against dangerous household chemicals in the United States.

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  • 1Center for History and Ethics, Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA.


The history of consumer protection against household poisons presents a key case study of the uniquely American struggle to balance public health and safety with the interests of business. By the late 19th century, package designs, warning labels, and state statutes had formed an uneven patchwork of protective mechanisms against accidental poisonings. As household chemicals proliferated in the early 20th century, physicians concerned with childhood poisonings pressured the federal government to enact legislation mandating warning labels on packaging for these substances. Manufacturers of household chemicals agreed to labeling requirements for caustic poisons but resisted broader regulation. Accidental poisonings of children continued to increase until the enactment of broad labeling and packaging legislation in the 1960s and 1970s. This history suggests that voluntary agreements between government agencies and manufacturers are inadequate to protect consumers against household poisonings and that, in the United States, protective household chemical regulation proceeds in a reactive rather than a precautionary manner.

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