“The taste buds of kids under 6 aren’t completely developed,” says Pittsburgh pediatrician Richard Moriarty, “so they’ll eat things that taste awful, rather than spit them out.” That physiological fact helps explain the accidental poisoning rate of children under 6: It costs 70 young lives in the U.S. each year.
In Pittsburgh, however, which once averaged three infant poisoning deaths annually, there have been none for the past six years, thanks at least partly to Moriarty, 39, and the National Poison Center Network he founded in 1974. The center’s fluorescent green “Mr. Yuk” symbol is now widely used in Pittsburgh as a warning on containers of lethal substances. Moriarty, a bachelor and childless (“At times you’re better not to have them so you can be a nonpartial kid advocate”) is also trying to make “Yuk” literally a household name nationwide. Boosted by a plug from Ralph Nader in a magazine article, the center already receives 77,000 calls a year, plus a few letters addressed “Mr. Yuk, Pittsburgh.”
Moriarty became involved in preventing child poisoning when he was a first year resident at the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital. A girl, 4, had swallowed a large number of birth control pills. “She was brought in half-dead,” Moriarty remembers, “and she went on to die. A doctor had induced vomiting. The treatment should have been nothing,” he continues. “Birth control pills are not toxic, but in this case the girl swallowed her own vomit. It was slow suffocation.”
Moriarty began planning a poison center staffed with specialists. Much of their work could be done by phone, since he believes 85 percent of poison cases can be treated at home by properly advised laymen. All he needed was financing. “I got the Foundation Directory,” he recalls, “and started to work my way through it alphabetically.” In the A’s he found the Allegheny Foundation, and in 1971 it gave him $150,000. Later, backing came from private business firms. “There are no federal bucks in our program—which is maybe why it has worked,” he cracks.
The Network’s annual budget of about $20 million now supports its 47 regional and satellite centers. The Pittsburgh headquarters has 23 full-time poison experts and a data bank on 70,000 products. Moriarty’s own $40,000 salary comes from the Pitt Medical School, where he teaches pediatrics and toxicology. He estimates that the Network saves Americans at least $60 million annually, mostly in hospital expenses. But he argues for eliminating some poison centers: “Many are poorly equipped and don’t have properly trained staffs. Don’t get poisoned in New York or L.A., for instance,” he cautions in typically blunt style. As for the origin of Mr. Yuk, Moriarty says it followed research indicating that children identified the old poison sign, a skull and crossbones, with pirates and adventure; if anything, they were more attracted to containers it appeared on. Then, he says, “We asked the kids what they associated with the word ‘poison,’ and they said death, illness and their mother yelling.” This inspired Yuk’s grimace. He became green because the kids disliked that color. “When one kid saw it,” Moriarty recounts, “he said it was ‘yukky’—so we had a name.”
Yuk is already printed on a few containers, though Moriarty recommends families apply Yuk stickers together as an educational process. The Network distributes 50 million of them annually and Moriarty urges that, in addition to obvious poisons, they be put on cologne, nail polish, shaving lotion, aerosol sprays, candy-flavored vitamins (they can lead to overdoses), cigarettes and even some house plants.
Moriarty, who has spent most of his life in Pittsburgh (his father supervised city garbage truck repairs), is encouraged by the local results. “Maybe we’ve got 15 or 18 kids in Pittsburgh who might not have been around before we started the Mr. Yuk program,” he says. “Will they grow up to be President? Maybe they’ll grow up to steal your hubcaps. I don’t give a damn. They’re alive.”