Mr. Yuk

ROMAN MARS: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Every town or city has its own regional celebrity who everyone recognizes. Maybe that person is a high school athlete who made it to the major leagues. Maybe they’re a titan of industry. Maybe they’re a flamboyant attorney with an excessive amount of billboard ads. “Something wrong? Call Anh Phoong.” Some of them become so successful that their acclaim spreads around the world–and sometimes not. Here to tell us about one of her own favorite local celebrities is actress, reporter, and friend of the show, Gillian Jacobs. Hey, Gillian!


ROMAN MARS: It’s so delightful to have you here.

GILLIAN JACOBS: I’m delighted as well. It’s my favorite place to be.

ROMAN MARS: So Gillian, you reached out to us because you wanted to talk about a very specific famous face that you saw all over your hometown.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Yes. So I come from the great city of Pittsburgh–also known as “Pixburgh” to locals. And there was a guy who was so famous there that I thought everyone knew his name. And it turns out that’s not quite the case.

ROMAN MARS: So who is this mysterious local celebrity?

GILLIAN JACOBS: I’m going to leave you in suspense for a little bit longer. So just to back up and explain, this guy recently popped into my head because a few months ago I was at home watching a football game, which is not common practice for me–re: Taylor Swift. But as I was watching the game, I noticed that one of the players had something on his helmet. It was this little, round, green sticker, and I was thinking, “Why am I drawn to this little, green, circular sticker on the back of his head?” And staring at it unleashed this voice in my head.

  1. YUK PSA: Mr. Yuk is mean. Mr. Yuk is green!

GILLIAN JACOBS: Mr. Yuk. I thought that the football player was wearing a Mr. Yuk sticker, and it turns out I was not even close. That sticker means that a player is allowed to communicate with the sidelines via a radio in his helmet, but it still sent me down this deep rabbit hole of why Mr. Yuk was so deeply embedded into my psyche that I was seeing him on the back of a football player’s head.

ROMAN MARS: Why indeed?

GILLIAN JACOBS: Why indeed? Have you ever heard of Mr. Yuk?

ROMAN MARS: I have. I am familiar with Mr. Yuk because he showed up briefly on this episode that we did years and years ago. But I also recognize him because I was a kid alive in the Midwest in the 1980s–central Ohio for me. But for people who are not Midwestern GenXers, who is Mr. Yuk?

GILLIAN JACOBS: Mr. Yuk is a neon green, circular sticker with a cartoon face on it. His face is scrunched up with his eyes squeezed tight, and his tongue is sticking out of its mouth. It’s the face you make when you taste something disgusting.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. He’s the pictorial embodiment of the sentiment of “yuck.”

GILLIAN JACOBS: Right. He’s a symbol for hazardous substances, aimed at deterring children from ingesting them. He was basically created to indicate that if you saw a Mr. Yuk sticker on something, it meant that that something was poison–do not ingest! And I grew up thinking he was as famous as Smokey Bear.

ROMAN MARS: Right. And if I remember correctly, parents would get these sheets of the Mr. Yuk stickers and stick them on dangerous stuff like drain cleaner or whatever a kid could get his hands on underneath the sink.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Exactly. So Mr. Yuk was created in 1971 by a physician named Dr. Richard Moriarty, who was a pediatrician and the founder of the Pittsburgh Poison Center. And as the head of the Pittsburgh Poison Center, he wanted to accomplish two different things. One, he wanted to prevent kids from ingesting potentially dangerous substances. And two, he wanted to teach parents that when their kids did ingest a potentially dangerous substance to call a poison control center before rushing them to a hospital because there was a good chance that the kid would be just fine. And calling poison control could save you a lot of time and money.

ROMAN MARS: Right. And just generally save taxpayer money, too.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Yes. So Roman, in your tenure as a parent, have you ever had to call poison control?

ROMAN MARS: No. Thankfully, no. No, not with any of my children. But I have always been fascinated by the Poison Control hotline because basically it’s this type of very low ambition free healthcare service that we can call anytime for a very specific kind of medical advice. I’ve always wondered how that came to be.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Well, Roman, you are a very lucky man because I’m here to tell you. So poison centers are actually a pretty recent phenomenon. Until the 19th century, we mostly had to rely on conspicuous packaging and poison labels for poison prevention. Apothecaries were required to store hazardous substances in irregularly shaped bottles so they wouldn’t be mixed up with the other products. And also in the mid-1800s, it became mandated by the American Pharmaceutical Association to clearly label a bottle with the word “poison” or with the medically accepted poison symbol at the time.

ROMAN MARS: And that poison symbol being the skull and crossbones.

GILLIAN JACOBS: You got it. But by the time we rolled around to the end of the 19th and early 20th century, there actually still wasn’t a ton else being done in terms of preventative poison control, which was a huge problem because around then a brand new danger was entering American homes.

  1. CLEAN AD: Mr. Clean gets rid of dirt and grime and grease in just a minute. Mr. Clean will clean your whole house and everything that’s in it.

ROMAN MARS: Oh yes, the dastardly Mr. Clean–the worst of all.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Now, I don’t want to blame everything on Mr. Clean–especially because he actually wasn’t invented at this time–but he and other packaged cleaners represented this huge cultural shift taking place in the early 1900s.

  1. MARIAN MOSER JONES: There was really an explosion of consumer product marketing and production. And there were all sorts of products that were coming on the market–like vacuum cleaners–but also household cleaners that were pre-prepared and packaged.

GILLIAN JACOBS: This is Dr. Marian Moser Jones. She’s an associate professor and historian of public health at Ohio State University. She says that at the turn of the 20th century, there was this whole chemical revolution taking place in the United States. In the early 1900s, Americans developed a kind of obsession with cleanliness and hygiene. There was also a huge rise in mass production and advertising, which meant more of these pre-packaged cleaners ended up in homes around the U.S.

  1. MARIAN MOSER JONES: So suddenly–whereas before it might’ve been that, in an average household, there might’ve been some lye soap or a couple of potential poisonous substances–now, there were all of these packaged cleaners. You had a floor cleaner or floor polish…

GILLIAN JACOBS: But most of these products being marketed were not being labeled correctly.

  1. MARIAN MOSER JONES: So this was very prevalent in turn of the 20th century U.S. society–these substances and these products that were mislabeled–and there wasn’t really a requirement to label them. And certainly if you were manufacturing some kind of product, I mean, why would you put a giant warning sign on it if all of your competitors are not?

ALAN WOOLF: I can remember and I lived through a time when there was a wonderful slogan called “Better Living Through Chemistry.” And consumers demanded household conveniences and at least some of these chemicals and some of these products were toxic.

ROMAN MARS: And so who is this?

GILLIAN JACOBS: This is Dr. Alan Woolf, and he wears many, many impressive hats. And two of them are pediatrician and the co-director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. He says that these new cleaning products were made up of incredibly dangerous and toxic chemicals. And because chemical companies really resisted proper warning label regulation, it was children in particular who were the big victims of accidental poisonings during this time.

ALAN WOOLF: Kind of post World War II and the baby boomer generation–a lot of infants and then toddlers came of age in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And the peak age of poisoning is somewhere between one and three years of age.

GILLIAN JACOBS: And that rise of dangerous household substances wasn’t limited to cleaning products either. Around the 1940s, the pharmaceutical industry came out with a marketing scheme that probably at the time sounded like a great idea but was actually terrible in execution: candy aspirin.

ALAN WOOLF: I’m old enough, Gillian, to remember taking candy aspirin. And it was just that. It was orange-flavored tablets and very attractive to children.

ROMAN MARS: “Ah yes, let’s make potentially dangerous medications synonymous with candy. What could possibly go wrong?”

GILLIAN JACOBS: Right? Not so fun fact, within three years of candy aspirin debuting, preschool aged children represented 80% of aspirin deaths.

ROMAN MARS: That is horrifying.

GILLIAN JACOBS: I know. So there’s this influx of dangerous products in homes, most of which are not labeled correctly. And on top of that, if a child got into one of those toxins, many doctors didn’t even know what or how much of those products would be lethal if ingested by children.

ALAN WOOLF: No one could keep all this in their head. “What’s the toxicity of the little things that you find in new shoe boxes that are supposed to keep the shoes dry–the little silica packets. Are they poisonous? Are mothballs poisonous?” Nobody could keep that all in their head. So Louis had the great idea of filling out little three by five cards.

GILLIAN JACOBS: So that Louis was Louis Gdalman–the man who developed the first poison control center. He was a pharmacist in Chicago at St. Luke’s Hospital, and he saw this issue of a lack of information on poisonings and decided to do something about it. He started collecting information on poisonous substances and filling it on these little index cards. He ended up accumulating information on roughly 9,000 different substances. And by the 1950s, he was the go-to poison expert.

ALAN WOOLF: And he sort of organized an informal referral service that people recognized him as an expert who was interested and could talk to these families and talk to healthcare providers about what the poisonings were and how they should be managed.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Physicians at St. Luke’s Hospital, where he worked, started consulting with Gdalman. And then word spread to other hospitals in Chicago and eventually to other cities. Gdalman would personally answer calls at any time–day or night–from his home. But it’s really hard to be a one-man band/Encyclopedia Brown of poisons. So eventually Gdalman–along with Dr. Edward Press–founded the first poison control center in the United States in 1953.

ALAN WOOLF: So that was the background for the start of the poison control movement in the United States.

GILLIAN JACOBS: After that, poison control centers started taking off like gangbusters. There was a huge number of centers opening up across the country throughout the 1960s.

ALAN WOOLF: It kind of became a marketing technique for your local hospital. “We have such high standards at our hospital that we have a poison control center.” So in the 1960s, that really took hold so that by the mid ’60s to late ’60s, there were over 600 poison centers in the United States.

GILLIAN JACOBS: But see, the problem with this influx of poison control centers was that the quality of care between the poison centers really could be inconsistent.

ALAN WOOLF: Some of them covered a neighborhood–a few thousand people–others covered millions of people. Some of them were staffed by secretaries or pediatric and family practice healthcare providers or trainees–whoever. So there was a lot of variability, and there were complaints. These were hard to reach. They weren’t adequately staffed. They weren’t adequately publicized. And the information they gave was variable.

GILLIAN JACOBS: And this disjointed approach to poison centers was a really dangerous problem. Dr. Woolf actually worked as a poison center operator, and he says that it’s a really high stress environment.

ALAN WOOLF: I was in the poison control center and talking to a parent and they are saying, “My child just swallowed floor wax!” And so I had to juggle the microfiche reader and put in what the floor wax contained. And then when you found out the detergents, you had to flip that out and flip in the other kind of management microfiche reader. Meanwhile, the parent is holding online.

GILLIAN JACOBS: He told me one story that really illustrated how important it was to have reliable care at these centers.

ALAN WOOLF: I remember a call I got at 7:00 AM one morning of two workers in Massachusetts who were found down at change of shift.

GILLIAN JACOBS: So these two men had been working in a chemical plant and were found unconscious. Their job was to stir this sludge that was actually toxic discharge, and they weren’t wearing protective gear.

ALAN WOOLF: And unfortunately this particular sludge contained a substance called propionitrile, which when you inhale it is turned into cyanide. So they were both suffering from cyanide poisoning.

ROMAN MARS: Oh, my God.

GILLIAN JACOBS: I know. It’s horrific, but luckily in this case, Dr. Woolf–who is a trained specialist–was there to answer the call.

ALAN WOOLF: We recommended giving the cyanide antidote kit very quickly, and they were saved.

ROMAN MARS: So in a situation like that, you really need someone who’s highly trained to answer your call, which at the time is kind of a roll of the dice because there’s 600 different call centers with varying degrees of reliability.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Yes. And this was one of the big problems that Dr. Richard Moriarty–the father of Mr. Yuk–wanted to solve in 1971. He wanted to find a way to make sure parents had the information of a trusted poison control center if their child ingested anything dangerous. Dr. Moriarty actually passed away in 2023, but this is a clip from an interview he did a few years before he died.

RICHARD MORIARTY: We needed to get out the word that there was a real poison center for real people that were there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they sort of knew what they were doing. And if you had a problem, give us a buzz. So we had to get our phone number out to the world.

GILLIAN JACOBS: On top of the lack of knowledge around reliable poison centers like the one he was running, Dr. Moriarty realized that there was a very unique problem that impacted the children of Pittsburgh specifically.

ROMAN MARS: Oh, what is that?

GILLIAN JACOBS: So as you remember, the medically accepted warning symbol for poison since the 1800s was the skull and crossbones, right? Well, in Pittsburgh, that symbol carries a different connotation for kids.

RICHARD MORIARTY: The traditional warning symbol was the skull and crossbones, which just happened to be part of the logo for the Pittsburgh Pirates and still is. Okay? And I thought, “You know, that doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense.”

ROMAN MARS: Oh my God, that’s so true.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Yeah. We love our sports in Pittsburgh. So the Pittsburgh pirates–this is huge for us. And there’s a perhaps apocryphal story that the children of Pittsburgh would see a skull and crossbones image and rather than think, “Dangerous, poisonous, I must stay away,” they would think, “Oh, my beloved baseball team! Maybe this bottle of Windex is a Pittsburgh Pirates beverage.” So Dr. Moriarty had the idea to create a brand new symbol that would both spread awareness of the Pittsburgh Poison Center and was original and free from any other associations–one that would only and strictly mean “do not eat.” He wanted something akin to Smokey Bear or McGruff the Crime Dog–an anthropomorphized PSA. And Dr. Moriarty believed that for this symbol to be effective with children, they needed to engage with them in the design process. And so he worked with a PR firm to pull together a focus group of kids.

RICHARD MORIARTY: And we started off basically with sort of preschool aged kids and said to them, “If you got into a poison, what would happen to you?” And the recurring answers were: “You die,” “You get sick,” “Your mother would yell at you…” Okay. And we thought that those were all pretty good things.

ROMAN MARS: Accurate things.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Good answers. So Moriarty worked with a guy named Dick Garber of the PR firm Vic Maitland and Associates. And they interviewed children five and under and used their answers to come up with the design of the face and the color of the sticker.

ROMAN MARS: And this is the Mr. Yuk sticker that you thought erroneously was on the back of a football player’s helmet–the sort of the squinty face, the tongue, and, like, this bright fluorescent green.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Exactly. So the thought process behind the color was which color will children like the least? Which color will they be repelled by? Clearly the color stuck with me. I think I’m seeing it every time I see a green circle. So they presented children with several colors to choose from, and the consensus was that they liked the fluorescent green the least. And while they did use a graphic designer to come up with the initial sketches, when it came to the final design–this is my favorite part–they held a contest for kids via the Pittsburgh Poison Control Center. And a fourth grader from West Virginia named Wendy Brown designed the logo and won the contest.

ROMAN MARS: Oh, go for it, Wendy! Nice!

GILLIAN JACOBS: We tried to track her down for this story. We could not find her, but Wendy, if you’re listening, congratulations. So they had the design and the color, but they still needed a catchy name. We all know how important names are, right? So they went back to the kids, and they showed them the sick face and fluorescent green. And one kid said, “He looks yucky!” And that was a mic drop moment. You got your name: Mr. Yuk.

ROMAN MARS: Out of the mouth of babes.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Literally. In the words of Dr. Moriarty, the skull and crossbones were designed by adults for adults. Mr. Yuk is actually the first symbol specifically designed for kids.

ROMAN MARS: I mean, creating a symbol for young children is really an interesting design challenge because a good portion of your audience doesn’t even know how to read. So it has to be something very literal, very memorable, and very easy to understand.


ROMAN MARS: So how popular did the Mr. Yuk program end up getting?

GILLIAN JACOBS: So the Pittsburgh Poison Center mailed many, many sheets of the stickers to households around Pennsylvania and beyond, which definitely got the word out. But Mr. Yuk really took off in 1975 after a PSA ran during the 1975 Super Bowl.

  1. YUK PSA: Home is full of lots of things that children shouldn’t touch. Home is full of bad things that can hurt you very much. Now there’s a man whose face is green that you ought to get to know. He’ll warn you when danger’s coming fast or slow. And get to know his face in every single place…

GILLIAN JACOBS: Parents, like my mom, dutifully slapped them onto bottles, spray cans, medications, yada, yada, yada. And for kids like myself, Mr. Yuk was a daily household presence. My mom even put one on our home phone.

ROMAN MARS: Well, she’s contributing to the semiotic drift here, Gillian. Like, what is that?

GILLIAN JACOBS: No! No! This was actually encouraged by the Poison and Control Center so that you would always have the number at hand–at the ready.

ROMAN MARS: Oh, she wasn’t suggesting that the phone was poisonous and that you were going to eat it or something? Okay.

GILLIAN JACOBS: She was worried about a lot of things in my childhood. I don’t think that was one of them. So usage of Mr. Yuk actually did spread slightly beyond Pittsburgh, but it never became the ubiquitous national symbol for poison control centers.

ROMAN MARS: Why do you think that is?

GILLIAN JACOBS: I think one part of it was that initially Dr. Moriarty would only send the stickers to hospitals who agreed to participate in his Pittsburgh Poison Center program. And this required that the Pittsburgh Poison Center would be the central hub and all the other centers would have to report back to them. And I think some other cities and regions wanted to do their own thing. A lot of hospitals saw it as a way to create attention for their local poison control center. And some of them even created rival mascots. Mr. Yuk’s biggest competition was Officer Ugg, who was a cartoon cop with his hands over his mouth. He also came with his own theme song, I’ll have you know.

OFFICER UGG PSA: I’m Officer Ugg. My name is Officer Ugg. Remember never to touch poisons and such when you see Officer Ugg.

ROMAN MARS: What the hell is that?

GILLIAN JACOBS: It doesn’t even make any sense.

ROMAN MARS: It does not!

GILLIAN JACOBS: The children aren’t Officer Ugg! Why are they saying, “I’m Officer Ugg”? I don’t get it.

ROMAN MARS: I don’t get it at all.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Too cute. I want my poison control mascot to scare the crap out of me. That wasn’t even the end of it. There were other rival mascots like No Siop the Snake.


GILLIAN JACOBS: Do you get it, Roman? No Siop?


GILLIAN JACOBS: Oh, I’m sorry. “No Siop” is “poison” spelled backwards. Thought that would be obvious to you. There was also Pinky the Elephant and, my favorite, Uncle Barf.

ROMAN MARS: Well, Uncle Barf–I could see that one working.

GILLIAN JACOBS: That is a good name.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. We all had an Uncle Barf.

GILLIAN JACOBS: I know. I actually think that one still has legs. Maybe it’s not too late. Internet, do your thing. So as you can see, this disjointed, uncoordinated approach meant Mr. Yuk wasn’t as recognized in most parts of the U.S. And this war of the poison control mascots kind of illustrated the problem with poison control centers across the country at the time because there still was no single coordinated poison control agency.

ROMAN MARS: So then what happened to Mr. Yuk?

GILLIAN JACOBS: By the 1980s and ’90s, the number of poison control centers started to decline. And then in the early 2000s, Congress passed the Poison Control Center Enhancement and Awareness Act, which allocated support to poison centers. So now 100% of the U.S. population is served by just a single toll-free phone number from anywhere in the country, which is great. But it also means that Mr. Yuk wasn’t relevant anymore because people didn’t need to be directed to the Pittsburgh Poison Center’s number.

ROMAN MARS: So basically because we have one single national poison control number, Mr. Yuk just wasn’t really useful anymore.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Exactly. The Pittsburgh Poison Center does still distribute stickers for fun, but they now have the national poison control number, which is 1800-222-1222. Oh! I’ll also side note that when the national number was established, there was a push to adopt Mr. Yuk as the national symbol, but it was rejected in favor of… Do you know Roman?

ROMAN MARS: I mean, was it the skull and crossbones again?

GILLIAN JACOBS: Close but no cigar! It’s a red pill bottle with a white skull and crossbones. I mean it’s fine. It’s fine, but it’s not iconic like Mr. Yuk, in my opinion.

ROMAN MARS: I mean, well, the problem with a skull and crossbones is it is iconic, but it’s iconic for a lot of different reasons. It’s cool looking. It’s cool for pirates. It is just not all poison anymore. But I guess what I’m curious about is if the Mr. Yuk branding really worked. Like, did it actually reduce childhood accidental poisonings in and around the Pittsburgh area at least?

GILLIAN JACOBS: So Mr. Yuk launched in 1971 and, within just a couple of years, rates of childhood poisoning actually began plummeting.

ROMAN MARS: Wow. Really? Okay.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Yeah, but not because of Mr. Yuk.

  1. MARIAN MOSER JONES: Mr. Yuk is great for educational purposes and awareness, but you really need to prevent the kid who’s really determined to get into that bottle. I mean, a three-year-old or a four-year-old has little impulse control and a lot of curiosity. And so I’ve had one three-year-old and a four-year-old before, and so I know this. they may not be deterred by any kind of symbol. They’re deterred by packaging that prevents them from getting into the actual package.

GILLIAN JACOBS: That was Dr. Moser Jones again, and she says that in 1970 Congress passed the Poison Prevention Packaging Act, which mandated child resistant packaging. In the intervening years, child poisoning deaths have fallen by roughly 73%, and they have stayed low ever since.

  1. MARIAN MOSER JONES: By 1981, childhood poisoning death rates had fallen to 25% of their 1961 levels. And since 1972, childhood poisoning death rates have not gone back up. So this has saved lives–this kind of packaging and this enforcement–although some people may criticize it as being the nanny state. It has saved lives. I mean, children need a nanny, right?

ROMAN MARS: They do. They totally do. This is not an example of the nanny state. I mean, this is huge. Better packaging, better public awareness, and quality access to poison control centers combined to reduce a number in an extremely meaningful way. They stopped these kids from getting sick or dying from household poisons. It’s amazing.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Yes. And I also have to mention that some have questioned the effectiveness of Mr. Yuk. Some studies found that the symbol didn’t deter children. And in fact, some kids were actually drawn to ingesting harmful substances because of Mr. Yuk.

  1. MARIAN MOSER JONES: What’s funny is that I do remember the Mr. Yuk stickers.

GILLIAN JACOBS: So Dr. Moser Jones actually grew up with Mr. Yuk as a kid in St. Louis.

  1. MARIAN MOSER JONES: The thing that stuck with me most was that, in our basement, my mother had this old bottle. It was actually a jug with a skull and crossbones on it, and that was much more impactful than Mr. Yuk stickers. And again, I mean, I grew up in a time where there were these characters like Oscar the Grouch in Sesame Street, who was sort of a yucky character. I mean, he lived in the trash. He sang these songs about being dirty. And so these kind of dirty and yucky characters were somewhat appealing. And so I do think that there is a problem when you have a sticker that could be appealing to kids as well–and not just scary.

ROMAN MARS: I mean, this is a problem for all symbols. Kids and people just have their own opinions about what a symbol means, and it always shifts.

GILLIAN JACOBS: Yes, and you know what? I don’t want to sell Mr. Yuk short at all. I love the guy. It was a campaign that spread a lot of important awareness about the poison control system. So Mr. Yuk may not have been the hero of the poison control movement, but he was definitely a hero in Pittsburgh.

ROMAN MARS: Indeed. Well, thank you so much, Gillian, for bringing us the complete history of Mr. Yuk. I had such a fun time talking with you.

GILLIAN JACOBS: My absolute pleasure.

WE’RE NOT CANDY PSA: This is serious. (Serious.) We could make you delirious. (Delirious.) You should have a healthy fear of us. (Fear of us.) Too much of us is dangerous. (Dangerous.)

ROMAN MARS: After the break, we revisit a classic 99PI story about warning labels, shared language, and radioactive cats. Stay with us. Ever since this next story first aired back in 2014, it has been a crowd favorite. We thought we’d share it with you again because it features an appearance from a certain mean green pictorial embodiment of the word “yuck.” Enjoy.

MATTHEW KIELTY: I want to start with a letter.

ROMAN MARS: This is reporter Matthew Kielty.

MATTHEW KIELTY: This is a letter that got sent out to a couple hundred people back in 1990. So Roman, if you have the letter and you don’t mind.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. For sure. “Dear so-and-so, the safe disposal of nuclear waste is one of the most pressing issues facing the United States today–“

MATTHEW KIELTY: It totally is, but if you actually skip down past that, there’s… I mean, that’s just about how there’s these people who are planning on bearing a bunch of nuclear waste out in the New Mexico desert at this place called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. But if you go down, like, another paragraph…

ROMAN MARS: “You have been nominated to participate in a study sponsored by Sandia National Laboratories that will identify what kinds of markers should be placed at the WIPP site–“

MATTHEW KIELTY: Yeah, just jump down a little bit further.

ROMAN MARS: “–to develop a marker system that will remain operational during the performance period of the site, 10,000 years.”

MATTHEW KIELTY: There it is. There it is. That is the part that I love.

JON LOMBERG: I had a moment of wondering if it was a joke.

MATTHEW KIELTY: This is Jon Lomberg. He received one of these letters, which makes sense given his line of work.

JON LOMBERG: I’m an artist, and I work on projects involving unusual communication problems.

MATTHEW KIELTY: The dude spent time in the seventies working with Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan on the Voyager Golden Record.

ROMAN MARS: One of NASA’s attempts at communicating with aliens.

MATTHEW KIELTY: So, you’d think this sort of thing would be right in his wheelhouse.

JON LOMBERG: You know, usually you don’t get asked to design something that’s going to last 10,000 years. That’s twice the span of recorded human history.

MATTHEW KIELTY: The federal government really was calling on him to help protect people 10,000 years in the future.

ROMAN MARS: The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant–W.I.P.P. or WIPP for short–was ordered into existence by Congress in 1979. The thinking was that the U.S. ought to have a safe place to put radioactive byproducts from nuclear weapons manufacturing and nuclear power plants. And a quick refresher, even though you don’t see radiation and you might not feel its effects right away, exposure to radioactive materials can destroy your body at a molecular level. It can leave burns, it can cause cancer, and it can even mutate your DNA.

MATTHEW KIELTY: And the thing about radioactivity is that it is very spreadable. Say you’ve got a tool that touched a piece of plutonium–now that tool is radioactive. And say a worker was wearing protective gloves while using that tool–chances are those gloves are radioactive, too.

ROMAN MARS: The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant was designed to store all of this stuff and keep us all safe from it.

MATTHEW KIELTY: The WIPP site is in New Mexico–deep in the desert, about 26 miles east of Carlsbad.

JON LOMBERG: It’s a really cool place. It reminded me of the headquarters of Spectre or Dr. No in a James Bond novel because it’s this big underground facility filled with technicians in coveralls. And it’s all color-coded depending on what they did.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Jon saw the website in person when he accepted the invitation from Sandia Labs to go be a part of their big groupthink on designing a 10,000 year warning for the place.

JON LOMBERG: How could you turn it down?

ROMAN MARS: This was in 1991.

MATTHEW KIELTY: So, the workers took John into an elevator shaft, and they go down about a half a mile beneath the surface. And that’s where John saw these enormous caverns.

JON LOMBERG: They’ve carved out this repository in basically a salt deposit–a salt deposit 200 million years old. And we think of salt as white, but this salt–for reasons I don’t understand–was kind of a salmony pink color. So, the walls of this place were all crystalline, sort of shot through with these hues of salmon and pink and orange. It was actually quite beautiful.

MATTHEW KIELTY: All this radioactive stuff will all be loaded into thousands of oil drums and packed into these caverns. And then this underground chamber will be sealed up and left alone. Years will pass, and those years will become decades. And those decades will become centuries. And centuries will roll into millennia. And people above ground will come and go. Cultures will rise and fall. And all the while below the surface, the salt will do what salt does with the right temperature and pressure. It’ll slowly creep, making that cave full of waste, smaller and smaller and smaller, until the salt swallows up all those oil drums, crushing them–entombing them. And so there, solidified in the Earth’s crust, will be these gloves and these tools and these little bits from bombs that we made, all still radioactive–poisonous–for more than 200,000 years… Basically forever.

ROMAN MARS: Storing something dangerous safely forever is a huge design problem. In fact, the jury’s still out on whether they solved the basics of the storage problem at all. In February of 2014, a leak was detected that exposed several workers to low levels of radiation. And WIPP has been closed since. The Department of Energy now predicts that it could be up to three years before WIPP is fully operational again. We know these facts because we can look it up and read the news in a shared language, but the problem that Jon Lomberg was brought out to New Mexico to solve was not about communicating the danger of WIPP to people today. He wanted to figure out how to tell people millennia from now that this place is dangerous. When John Lomberg arrived in New Mexico, he met the teammates he’d be collaborating with. There were geologists, linguists, astrophysicists–

MATTHEW KIELTY: There was science fiction writer Gregory Benford…

MAUREEN KAPLAN: “And you would be the archeologist.”

MATTHEW KIELTY: This is Maureen.

MAUREEN KAPLAN: Maureen Kaplan.

ROMAN MARS: An archeologist with the consulting firm ERG.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Do you remember what you thought of the people they’d gotten together, like, when you first saw them?

MAUREEN KAPLAN: I was like, “Oh my goodness.”

MATTHEW KIELTY: She was kind of starstruck.

MAUREEN KAPLAN: I went, “Jon Lomberg… Wait a moment. Aren’t you the one who did the picture that went off into space in terms of trying to communicate with whoever might find the Voyager?” So I was impressed.

MATTHEW KIELTY: After hellos and whatnot, the Sandia folks split all these smarties into two different groups.

JON LOMBERG: So they’d have kind of two separate thinking processes.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Jon was in Group B–Maureen Group A.

JON LOMBERG: And then…

MATTHEW KIELTY: And then they laid down the ground rules.

JON LOMBERG: They told us to assume that we’re designing a warning marker for humans.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Not aliens, not cyborgs…

JON LOMBERG: But for a human being biologically identical to us but who’s alive 500 or 5,000 or 10,000 years from now. How can you make a message that that human will understand?

MATTHEW KIELTY: And why 10,000 years?

JON LOMBERG: As far as I could determine, the logic seemed to be, “Well, if we told them to design a marker to last 250,000 years, that’s clearly a ridiculous and absurd proposition. 10,000 years doesn’t sound quite so crazy.” So it was just pulled out of the air.

ROMAN MARS: In other words, even though this site is going to be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, this panel was only responsible for keeping this place sufficiently labeled for humans for the next 10,000 years.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Let’s get some perspective. Think about where humanity was 10,000 years ago. Back then, there was a hot new technology taking the world by storm. It was called farming. Before the agricultural revolution, humans subsisted as gatherer-hunters.

ROMAN MARS: Biologically, we are the same people we were 10,000 years ago. Actually, that’s true going back over 40,000 years. But culturally, we share almost nothing with these people.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Definitely not language.

JON LOMBERG: Well, no, because the linguists tell us that language changes. Language has a halflife, just like radioactive materials have a halflife.

MATTHEW KIELTY: And this halflife isn’t very long. Think about Shakespeare.

MALE: My cousin Westmoreland? Nay, my fair cousin.

FEMALE: Alack! What poverty my Muse brings forth.

MALE: But this dotage of our general’s O’er-flows the measure.

JON LOMBERG: Some of the words are tough.

MALE: “Bully rook.”

FEMALE: “Festinately.”

JON LOMBERG: But high schoolers can get through it.

ROMAN MARS: Although Shakespeare was only 400 years ago–4% of 10,000 years.

MATTHEW KIELTY: But go back to Beowulf, written in Old English? Basically incomprehensible.

JON LOMBERG: And it’s like a different language.

MATTHEW KIELTY: And I know you can’t see this because this is radio, but–trust me–it’s just as confusing on the written page. You can recognize most of the letters as being part of the English alphabet, but they barely correspond with how we use those letters today.

ROMAN MARS: And that’s from year 1,000–10% of 10,000 years.

JON LOMBERG: There are some languages that are very resistant to change. That is languages that get enshrined in biblical texts–in religious texts.

ROMAN MARS: Latin, Hebrew, Arabic…

MATTHEW KIELTY: But those aren’t sure bets either. The oldest written texts go back to ancient Sumeria, about 4,600 years ago. And those languages are long since dead.

ROMAN MARS: And that’s not even the halfway mark of our timeframe.

MATTHEW KIELTY: So both Team A and Team B at the WIPP brainstorming session realized pretty quickly that every language on the planet today could be gone well before 10,000 years.

JON LOMBERG: And how can you start a conversation with somebody that you have no common language with?

MATTHEW KIELTY: Both groups weren’t sure about this. Then they thought, “There’s got to be something better than language.”



MAUREEN KAPLAN: Pictures. There are some facial expressions which are pretty universal.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Like the smiley face–two dots for eyes and a half circle for a mouth–it’s happy!


MATTHEW KIELTY: And take another one…

MAUREEN KAPLAN: For, like, “yuck.”

JON LOMBERG: A symbol called Mr. Yuk.

ROMAN MARS: If you were alive in the ’80s, you know this one.

  1. YUK PSA: Mr. Yuk is mean. Mr. Yuk is green.

ROMAN MARS: It’s a logo of a green face with squinty eyes and a stuck out tongue. The face looks like it’s about to be sick.

  1. YUK PSA: Sick, sick, sick!

ROMAN MARS: It was designed to be put on cleaning products and other household poisons to let kids know that whatever’s inside is going to be horrible for you. And so thinking along those lines, they considered another logo, which they thought might be universal.

JON LOMBERG: Actually, Carl Sagan proposed it.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Sagan couldn’t make the panel, but he sent in a letter saying, “This whole marker problem was easy. You just need the right symbol.” And he knew just the one…

JON LOMBERG: The skull and crossbones. The Jolly Roger.

ROMAN MARS: Death incarnate.

JON LOMBERG: Well, do you know where the skull and crossbones came from?

MATTHEW KIELTY: No. No, I don’t.

JON LOMBERG: The earliest uses of it are in religious paintings and sculptures from the Middle Ages, where at the foot of the cross where Jesus is crucified, there’s a skull with two bones in the shape of a cross–not an X–the shape of a cross. And it’s Adam’s skull, and the bones are the symbol of the resurrection. So instead of it being a symbol of death, it was a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. But fast forward a couple of centuries,

MATTHEW KIELTY: There’s a lot of trade going on–merchant ships traveling to and fro.

JON LOMBERG: And in the ship’s log, if a sailor died, the captain would put a little skull and crossbones next to his name. And a lot of the sailors came to associate that symbol with death. The rebirth part of it was kind of lost. Fast forward another century…

MATTHEW KIELTY: You’ve got pirates out marauding on the high seas. They’ve plundered other boats and stolen their cargo. And along the way, some pirates realized they could use a symbol to let their targets know who they were.

ROMAN MARS: A branding campaign to terrify their targets into compliance.

JON LOMBERG: Yeah, to make clear, “We are pirates. And if you don’t surrender, we’re going to kill you. It’s your death.”

MATTHEW KIELTY: But there were actually several different icons that pirates used.

JON LOMBERG: For example, a heart with blood dripping out of it.

MATTHEW KIELTY: That was a popular pirate flag.

JON LOMBERG: And an even more popular symbol was an hourglass.

MATTHEW KIELTY: An hourglass?

JON LOMBERG: An hourglass meant, “If you don’t surrender in a certain amount of time, we’re going to kill you all.” So the hourglass for a while was the most feared pirate symbol.

ROMAN MARS: But then one of the logos got famous.

MATTHEW KIELTY: In 1720, a pirate named Calico Jack Rackham was captured and put on trial. In the legal proceedings, it came out that two of the pirates in Calico Jack’s crew were women and that one of them was pregnant with Calico Jack’s child. This was the tabloid scandal of the day, and everyone in England was reading about this trial. Anyway, it just so happened that Calico Jack’s symbol was the Jolly Roger. Though in his case, the bones were replaced with a pair of crossed swords.

ROMAN MARS: Quick aside, the name “Jolly Roger” is probably an English corruption of the French “Jolie Rouge” or “Pretty Red” because the original pirate flags were red–not black.

MATTHEW KIELTY: After that trial, the skull and crossbones started showing up on book covers.

JON LOMBERG: Treasure Island kind of novels.

ROMAN MARS: The skull and crossbones was permeating culture as a symbol of danger.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Jump ahead to the late 1800s–dye factories in Germany started using the skull and crossbones as a symbol for poison. Half a century later…

JON LOMBERG: The Nazis adopted it as the symbol for their SS Death’s Head divisions.

MATTHEW KIELTY: So the skull and crossbones came to be associated with danger and death around the world, but it didn’t become universal–not really. Think about what’s happened with the skull and crossbones in the last 20, 30 years. It’s gone mainstream now. Now, you’ll see it on kids’ book bags–on onesies for infants. You can even buy water bottles with the skull and crossbones. So much for the whole poison thing.

ROMAN MARS: And the original meaning, as it pertained to Adam and the resurrection, is long gone.

JON LOMBERG: The lesson that we took from this is that symbols can change.

ROMAN MARS: Iconographical drift happens.

MATTHEW KIELTY: And we haven’t even touched on cultural interpretation. Like, there’s a candy company in Mexico called La Catrina. And their logo–the logo that goes on the packaging for their sweets–is a skull.

ROMAN MARS: And so to bring us back to the WIPP site in New Mexico…

MATTHEW KIELTY: The two teams of smart people at WIPP realized that symbols couldn’t be trusted to mean the same things over time. So next idea…

JON LOMBERG: We could tell a little story using stick figures.

ROMAN MARS: Visual storytelling.

MATTHEW KIELTY: A stick figure that any five-year-old could draw.

JON LOMBERG: Yeah, circle on top, a trunk, two arms, and two legs.


JON LOMBERG: Well, there are two things that seem to be universal in human art. One is a stick figure. And you find them all drawn on the walls of the caves in the cave paintings that are 25,000 years old, which by the way may be the only piece of graphic art surviving for more than 10,000 years.

MATTHEW KIELTY: That is, art from which we can draw meaning. And John says there’s another convention that is universal.

ROMAN MARS: A sequence of events.

JON LOMBERG: First this happened, then this happened, and then this happened.

MATTHEW KIELTY: So like a narrative–a story.

JON LOMBERG: A narrative, a storyboard, a comic strip… You just find it everywhere. And in fact, you could even define a symbol using stick figures.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Check it out. Let’s do a simple comic strip. So, in the first frame, you put a small child.

ROMAN MARS: And the child is in front of a small plant–a sapling.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Second frame–that child is a little bit bigger now, and the sapling behind ’em has grown a little bit. And next to the child is a barrel. And on that barrel is the symbol for radiation–the trefoil symbol–and the child is touching that barrel. Go to the third frame–you got a full grown big old tree. You got a child that is now an adult–a human being–except the person is lying on the ground, presumably dead. X’s over their eyes–a frowny mouth–and the barrel now with the trefoil symbol is open. And so clearly the idea is don’t touch anything with the trefoil symbol–or at least not a barrel.

ROMAN MARS: Of course, if you read it from right to left, then it’s a totally different story. The old guy who is sick discovers the fountain of youth, and he’s reborn.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Okay, all is not lost. Maybe you could use arrows. Arrows are universal. Or maybe you could situate the various comic scripts in a sequence that you can only see sequentially based on how they’re arranged in a space. So–I don’t know–maybe it’s possible to create a universally recognizable warning sign that way. But really regardless of whatever symbol we’re trying to come up with or whatever story that we’re trying to tell, can we actually build something–make something–like a physical, tangible thing, that can last 10,000 years.

ROMAN MARS: The brainstormers at WIPP thought about building something from solid gold.

JON LOMBERG: Well, what’s going to happen? They’re going to get stolen.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Maureen Kaplan–the archeologist–her group realized the same thing.

MAUREEN KAPLAN: Metals were going to get recycled.

MATTHEW KIELTY: So no bronze–no aluminum. That basically leaves you with rocks, and rocks can erode. And who knows? A giant monolith could be useful to some future, desert person. You could just tip it over on its side, and then you have a foundation for your house.

ROMAN MARS: Here is the critical moment where all the obvious choices have been exhausted. Language, symbols, and storyboards weren’t going to cut it.

MATTHEW KIELTY: And here’s where plans for the website start getting really wacky. There was this one guy in Maureen’s group named Mike Brill.

MAUREEN KAPLAN: Mike Brill was a landscape architect.

MATTHEW KIELTY: And an artist. Brill has since passed away. But Maureen remembers, in their group, Brill had this revelation. You don’t actually need to transmit information into the future. All you need to do is make somebody scared of being in that place.

MAUREEN KAPLAN: He was trying to sculpt the landscape such that it in itself gave a warning to people who were coming there. And he was thinking on a massive scale–on a scale greater than I’d ever imagined.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Like one drawing–which Mike called The Landscape of Thorns–a drawing of these huge needles.

MAUREEN KAPLAN: Sharp, pointed, angular…

MATTHEW KIELTY: Jutting up from the ground.

MAUREEN KAPLAN: The earth itself became a cactus.

ROMAN MARS: Make the land itself ominous and impassible.


JON LOMBERG: The last thing you want to do is draw people to see this incredible work of art. “You got to see this thing. It’s a half mile of these giant spikes. What the hell is it?” So somebody builds a hotel for them to stay in and they decide to dig a well for water and there you are. You’ve just caused exactly what you’re trying to avoid.

ROMAN MARS: When all was said and done, both groups submitted their proposals. But Sandia Labs found most of the ideas a little too pie in the sky. Here’s Roger Nelson, the chief scientist at the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office, which owns and operates WIPP.

ROGER NELSON: If we build any markers, they need to be constructed at a reasonable cost because it’s just not right to ask real current generations of real people today to sacrifice, through their tax dollars or whatever, to invest in protecting a hypothetical intruder into some very far future from a risk for which there’s likely no harm to resolve.

ROMAN MARS: In fact, the panel that met to figure out the WIPP marker system was actually not the first instance of thinkers being brought together to consider how to communicate the dangers of nuclear waste over time. There was one such meeting in 1981 for the Yucca Mountain Project, which was eventually scrapped. And the Yucca Mountain Project had probably the craziest idea proposed. And even though it was never suggested for WIPP, it’s become the 99PI in-house favorite method of communicating with people 10,000 years in the future. In fact, it’s probably the reason why we’re doing this story at all. Call it “the ray cat solution.”

MATTHEW KIELTY: My hands down favorite approach came from these two European philosophers, Francois Bastide and Paolo Fabbri. It goes like this. The two of them got thinking that the most durable thing that humanity has ever made is culture. Religion, folklore, belief systems–sure–they morph over time, but an essential message can get pulled through. And so Bastide and Fabbri said, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to genetically engineer a species of cat that changes color in the presence of radiation. Then we’d release them out into the wild to become feline Geiger counters. And that’s just step number one. Step number two? We will create an entire system of folklore about these cats. So we will sing songs about them. We will draw pictures of them. We will tell stories about them. And like any good story, there’s a moral that when you see the cats turn color, run far, far away.”

RAY CAT SONG: So don’t change color, kitty. Keep your color, kitty. Stay that midnight black. The radiation that the change implies Can kill, and that’s a fact. The radiation, whatever that is, Is something we don’t want. ‘Cause it withers our crops And it burns our skin And it turns our livestock gaunt.So don’t change color, kitty. Don’t flash your eyes. So don’t change color.

MATTHEW KIELTY: Once this ray cat folklore becomes embedded into our culture, the knowledge it contains can evolve with us, Even as our language shifts. 10,000 years from now, These songs and these stories may sound incomprehensible to us. But as long as they communicate this idea that it’s not safe to be where the cats change colors, we will have done our job. May the ray cats keep us safe.

ROMAN MARS: The plan that Sandia Labs decided to move forward with does not involve ray cats, sadly, or a landscape of thorns. It doesn’t even involve the skull and crossbones.

ROGER NELSON: Another conceptual design includes a big berm–30 feet high–earthen construction around the footprint of the repository.

ROMAN MARS: That’s Roger Nelson again–the chief scientist overseeing WIPP. At the end of the day, the powers that be decided to go with solutions that the panelists had pretty much cast aside. They’re marking the area with large granite monuments…

ROGER NELSON: Large granite monuments at each corner and in the middle and several buried libraries.

ROMAN MARS: There will be information in seven languages–the six languages of the UN, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish, and also Navajo.

ROGER NELSON: Because it’s the most prevalent indigenous language of the area.

ROMAN MARS: The plan is still being finalized. But keep in mind, we’re talking about protecting people that our great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandkids will never know.

JON LOMBERG: We have a duty to warn them.

MAUREEN KAPLAN: We have a responsibility to mark the area.

MATTHEW KIELTY: After a certain point, I started wondering, like, “Isn’t this just a bit ridiculous?” While I was researching the story, I read about this town called Tallevast–a small, predominantly African-American community about an hour, hour and a half south of Tampa, Florida. In the 1960s, a beryllium processing plant was set up in the middle of town. The plant manufactured components for nuclear bombs and also built pieces of the Hubble Space Telescope. Anyway, it turned out that this plant was never very good about dealing with its waste. Beryllium, dust, and other toxins made their way into the town’s groundwater. And Tallevast had always gotten its water from shallow wells. Residents started noticing that a lot of people were getting diagnosed with cancer and other diseases, including berylliosis, which you get from exposure to beryllium. Tallevast filed a lawsuit against the company that owns the plant, Lockheed-Martin. And Lockheed spent years dragging out the lawsuit. Now, the reason I bring this up is because Lockheed-Martin happens to be the parent company of Sandia National Labs, the corporation that runs the website over in New Mexico. And this case, Tallevast, is hardly unique. There are literally thousands of towns across the United States–many of them low income or communities of color–that have become contaminated in similar ways.

ROMAN MARS: And so the 10,000 year WIPP marker system feels really noble but maybe a little misguided. I am all for taking care of people 10,000 years in the future, but I think the best way to do that is to start taking care of people that are alive today. That way there might be humans in 10,000 years… And cats.

RAY CAT SONG: Don’t change color, kitty. Keep your color, kitty. Stay that pretty ray. Don’t change color, kitty. Keep your color, kitty. Keep sickness away. Don’t change color, kitty. Keep your color, kitty. Please, ’cause if you do, Or glow your luminescent eyes, We’re all gonna have to move.

ROMAN MARS: That story was reported by Matt Kielty and produced by Olive Samuel Greenspan back in 2014. Special thanks to Robb Moss, Matt Stroud, Jordan Oplinger, Evan Luwick, Steve Lerner, and Emperor X aka Chad Matheny for composing the original song Don’t Change Color, Kitty. 99% Invisible was reported this week by Gillian Jacobs, and produced and edited by Vivian Le. Mix by Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Joe Rosenberg, Gabriella Gladney, Kelly Prime, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Sarah Baik, Neena Pathak, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence.We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. Home of the Oakland Roots Soccer Club, of which I am a proud community owner. Other teams come and go, but the Roots are Oakland first, always.You can find us on all the usual social media sites, as well as our new Discord server. It’s really great over there. I encourage you to join. There’s a link to that as well as every past episode of 99PI. At



This week’s story was reported by actress, reporter, and friend of the show, Gillian Jacobs, and edited by 99pi’s own Vivian Le.

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