Long before hundreds of emojis had been created to convey wishes for happiness, good luck, support, and congratulations, a single character was saving the lives of children throughout the United States. His name is Mr. Yuk and, at the ripe old age of 50, he is still both relevant and effective.
Mr. Yuk’s story begins, oddly enough, with baseball. In the late 1960s, the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team had racked up so many successful seasons that the team’s logo of a swashbuckling pirate began to appear on everything from T-shirts and caps to magazine ads, billboards, and flags on display all over the city.
The bad news was that the slightly menacing pirate closely resembled the skull and crossbones used to identify cleansers, solvents, and other poisonous consumer products. The resemblance was so striking that, by 1971, doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Poison Center made the shocking realization that the increase in childhood poisonings they’d noticed was likely linked to local children interpreting a skull and crossbones as a Pittsburg Pirates logo and, therefore, something positive.
Dr. Richard Moriarity, who ran the poison center, took on the responsibility of creating a new warning system. But instead of assuming what would keep kids away from a can or bottle, Dr. Moriarity and his team tested the effectiveness of several evil-looking mascots during a series of focus groups with children. The symbol that was least attractive to the children was, not surprisingly, a scowling face, which implied not only don’t touch, but, according to the kids, that whatever was inside would make them sick.
The grim face — tongue out, eyes furrowed in discomfort — gained its moniker, Mr. Yuk, when one of the focus group children said to a moderator, “He looks yucky.”
Though Mr. Yuk was created to keep kids away from poison, he was created as the first step in a poison education program. Since most cases of accidental ingestion are not deadly, the first step with a suspected poisoning should be to call the poison center rather than simply head to a local emergency room. Reaching out to the poison center has another benefit as well: if a trip to the ER is warranted, the center can alert the hospital that a child is on the way, and information on what he or she has ingested and other pertinent details can be shared so the hospital can be ready and prepared when the child arrives.
Before long, the program became so successful that it expanded, first to a network of hospitals in the Pittsburgh area and later to other centers in the United States. Today, 50 years after Mr. Yuk made his debut in Pittsburgh, stickers continue to be printed with a single national poison-help hotline number: (800) 222-1222. Callers are routed to their closest poison center, one of 55 Poison Control Centers in the United States, and calls are answered by physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and other medical professionals with specific training in toxicology.
Mr. Yuk is also technologically savvy, driving poison prevention and treatment education through both Twitter and Facebook. In addition to Mr. Yuk stickers, crayons, pencils, magnets, key rings, tumblers, face masks, cell phone wallets, and other products are also available to help spread the word.
In South Carolina, the Palmetto Poison Center is located in the University of South Carolina College of Pharmacy in Columbia, but it serves all 46 counties in the state. The center receives more than 33,000 calls each year, more than half of which involve children under the age of 6. Exposures range from accidental and intentional ingestion of poisonous substances and medications to adverse drug effects, snake or insect bites, occupational exposures, and biochemical disasters. Advice is free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.