What is that thing? The new GHS symbol for carcinogens

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.


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

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

  3. Bill Atkinson says:

    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

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

  6. Chemjobber says:

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

  7. 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. @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. 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?

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

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

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

    I own my town house in Scarborough since 1991; several times and over the years I noticed that some one has been coming into my home, but I do not know how because I have the keys and I sometime change my lock 3-4 times per year. They have tampered with my passport and change my country of birth. Put six inch concrete nails in my electrical panel, to create electromagnetic field, change my window at least five time time and whenever I asked management about it they would tell me it was there all the time. The year 1993 written on the front windows in my kitchen and and all bed room windows. These windows have metallic strips with a “diamond symbol” IGMAC CK Seal (Miss) I insisted that they were not there; I did some research and learned that “1993 and the diamond symbol meant ‘CARCINOGEN” All this time I have been ill and have been complaining to the Toronto and Scarborough Police they did nothing to help and some made fun of me. The criminals changed my car and gave me a junk car, they changed my door, customize my birth certificate along with other documents, stole checks along list of organized crimes including big companies, NASA, Researchers, Astrologist, Dentists, Thugs, neighbors with military weapons, Seal, doctors etc. My life is in danger I know my neighbours are using high powered weapons such as “Ranger Dector” No matter where I hide they are able to accurately pinpoint my location and hit the wall. Immediately as the wall is hit I feel the pain; to the point of which I staggered, my tongue and my lip become heavy and numb. I am not too familiar with science but I know that “Proton travels faster than light”

    How did these weapons get into the hands of local people who don’t have a job? One neighbour pointed a detector at me last year and bur my arm and it continues to burn for months.

    This makes me think that “Cabon atom is hidden in my the walls and all over my home; Please can you help me

  15. Thanks for the symbol picture

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