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Labels in English Pose Risk in Multilingual Nation

May 20, 2001

Labels in English Pose Risk in Multilingual Nation


WASHINGTON, May 19 -- One man drowned while scuba diving. One severely injured his eye with a nail driver. One was badly burned when a tank of propane exploded in his face.

In each case, the accident victim was an immigrant who did not understand the English-language warning label on the equipment he used. And too often, according to health care specialists, lawyers and civil rights advocates, products sold in the United States carry warnings in no other language.

The need for more effective labels has grown significantly, they say, in light of the latest census, which shows an increasingly diverse population.

"English can no longer be considered the default language of the United States," said Christopher Ho, a lawyer at the Employment Law Center in San Francisco who has represented immigrants in language discrimination cases.

That conclusion carries major implications for the way the public is warned about hazards, health care experts say. When warnings are written only in English, said Dennis P. Andrulis, a professor of preventive medicine at the State University of New York's Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, "many people simply will not understand."

Since consumers in this country speak so many languages, one solution might be to use pictures, like the icons that guide travelers around airports.

While companies often provide multilingual instruction booklets with products like appliances, many provide only English on their warning labels. That is true even when the products have been marketed with foreign-language advertisements.

"Everybody kind of makes this big to-do about companies advertising in languages other than English," Mr. Ho said. "The flip side is that these same companies don't give all the warnings and caveats in languages someone who doesn't speak English might understand."

The failure to provide non-English warnings can pose serious risks, health care experts say. The consequences include higher accident and death rates, higher levels of poisoning, and frequent return trips to hospitals and medical centers because medications are not taken properly.

No state or federal laws require that warning labels contain foreign languages or pictograms, lawyers say. And the courts have tended to avoid taking a stand on the issue, saying that lawmakers should decide it, said Kenneth Ross, a product liability expert in Minnesota.

But some product liability consultants advise companies to provide warnings in foreign languages. James M. Miller, who is writing a book on warning labels, recommends including Spanish as a precaution, because it "may be thought to be necessary by some judges and juries in certain jurisdictions."

Mr. Miller predicted that "common law decisions in some of these areas will lead to state or federal requirements for multilingual labels."

The 2000 census found that 1 in 10 residents of the United States is an immigrant. How many of them struggle with English is hard to say because the Census Bureau will not release its data on English proficiency until next year. The 1990 census found that 7,741,259 American households, or 8.3 percent, were "linguistically isolated," meaning that no person 14 or older spoke English well.

Those numbers are likely to be higher now, considering the surge in immigration in the 1990's.

Critics say companies are reluctant to use non-English warnings because it would be expensive to test their effectiveness and to redesign the labels.

More than 140 languages are spoken in the United States. Providing Spanish translations, as some recommend, would not help immigrants who speak other languages.

"The real cure for all this is pictorials," said Luis Stabinski, a lawyer in Miami.

But pictorial warnings are not an ideal answer either, some experts say, because they cannot communicate as much information as words. "It's just really hard to develop pictorial symbols that fit complex things," said Michael S. Wogalter, a psychology professor at North Carolina State University and an expert on warning labels.

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