Chemistry Blog



Apr 07

What is that thing? The new GHS symbol for carcinogens

by Chemjobber | Categories: chemical safety | (41662 Views)

What's happening to that guy?!?

The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) is the new international standard for shipping and labeling chemicals so that their hazards are communicated in a logical fashion. Since we’re now in a globalized commerce system, where (for example) Aldrich sells chemicals all over the world , GHS creates a single standard for how different hazards (physical, health, environmental) will be communicated to shippers and receivers.

So if you look at the new symbols, they’re all pretty boring. I feel like the skull on the “toxic” label is just a little bit different and the dead fish for the “environmental hazard” is a little graphic, but gets the point across well.

But here’s my question — what’s this label on the right supposed to communicate? Any guesses?

That is the new GHS symbol for carcinogenicity. While I understand that you can’t write “HEY, DUMMY! THIS WILL GIVE YOU CANCER” in fifteen different languages, I feel that this thing that looks like the T-1000 after being hit with a shotgun will just lead to confusion in all parts of the world.

I shouldn’t criticize and not offer a better solution, but I’m not positive that there is one. It’s such a difficult concept to attempt to communicate. The broken double helix motif of the cancer hazard sign is aesthetically pleasing and logical, but it requires an understanding of basic molecular biology that Starman this symbol doesn’t require.


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  1. See Arr Oh

    I do believe that you win the pop culture prize for the afternoon, with both a Terminator and an NES reference. Well met.

  2. Mitch

    It would also assume the carcinogen works by cleaving DNA, which probably isn’t the case for a lot of carcinogens.

  3. Bill Atkinson

    It’s not just being used for carcinogens though. Also mutagens and teratogens (and specific target organ toxicity) . Good luck explaining those to the general public too! But I agree, it is confusing

    1. fledarmus

      And for respiratory, allergy, and asthma hazards. “When I use a [symbol] it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” (with apologies to Lewis Carroll)

  4. EquationForLife

    On the bright side, it does make people give the sign a second look…even if it looks like a “explosive when eaten” warning

    The confusing cancer sign reminded me of a picture I took in Beijing:

    Apparently, “Keep off the Grass” is not enough

  5. ExploSci

    I would have figured “causes very bad heartburn” from the image…

  6. Chemjobber

    If a science fiction TV show had futuristic stormtroopers that had that symbol as a shoulder patch, no one would be surprised.

  7. David Bradley

    It is an odd device. Looks more like a snowflake or another crystal growing with hexagonal symmetry. Presumably, it is intended to represent a central point of carcinogenicity and the growth and spread (metastasis) of the disease. Still, there could be more obvious symbols…

  8. See Arr Oh

    @David – What other symbol did you envision? I thought, maybe a figure of a person with an obvious growth or tumor, or perhaps some DNA unraveling like a plate of spaghetti…

  9. John Spevacek

    I think it would be perfect for the cardiopulmonary sensitization that can occur with isocyanates and other chemicals. But cancer? How about we go with a throwback symbol – a crab?

    1. Chemjobber

      See the cover for the book “The Emperor of Maladies” about cancer? A crab.

      1. Chemjobber

        Uh, that’s “seen.”

  10. Hap

    It looks like it means “will cause development of energy-based superpowers”. I didn’t think cancer was one of those.

  11. Tony

    In Europe they’ve always looked like this. Makes me wonder what the old symbol looked like…

  12. 187

    In my lab that symbol means “You can become Spider-Man”

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