May 23, 2018
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Reading the fine print an adventure

By Kent Ward

It’s been a long time since I’ve read the patient information sheet that the pharmacist hands out with each drug prescription dispensed. And now I remember why.

The literature I have before me seems long on potential negative ramifications and short on the positive  aspects of a newly prescribed medicine. Among the possible side effects listed: Dizziness, dry mouth/eyes, headache, heartburn, lightheadedness, mild drowsiness, muscle aches, nausea, unusual tiredness and a couple of  reactions not usually discussed at great length in polite company.

The flyer promises that the drug would not have been prescribed if the risks were considered greater than the benefits. Still, patients are to contact their doctor immediately if they experience blue or unusually cold hands or feet, chest pain, fainting, hallucinations, mood or vision changes, wheezing, yellowing of the eyes and so forth. They should also ring him up if they have allergic reactions such as rash, hives, itching, difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest or swelling of the mouth, face, lips or tongue. The sheet does not explain  what the patient is to do should the reading material scare him half out of his wits.

And then comes the kicker, the catch-all disclaimer seemingly designed to help fend off any lawsuit that might ensue should the consumer experience an adverse reaction not mentioned in the fine print. “This is not a complete list of all side effects that may occur.” Thank God for small favors. I don’t know whether I could have made it through the unabridged version.

Product warnings have their place, of course. Reminding us to keep potentially lethal products out of the hands of children, for example, or to wear safety goggles for certain jobs is not a bad thing. It’s helpful to know that if you don’t take proper precautions concerning ventilation when using a pressurized can of spray paint, the harmful vapor “may affect the brain or nervous system, causing dizziness, headache or nausea.” It also helps to know what to do should you accidentally paint yourself instead of the porch railing you thought you were aiming for.

Some warnings, though, flat out mystify. “For external use only” reads the label on a bottle of sunscreen lotion. “Do not take internally,” the warning on a tube of tub and tile adhesive caulk states. “If swallowed, drink several glasses of water to dilute the ingested material” instructs the fine print on the back of a can of floor wax remover. I’m guessing the wax remover-swallowing constituency is not terribly huge. But I suppose it’s wise to cover all the bases.

A can of engine starting fluid carrying instructions about what to do should you incompetently handle the product provokes a memory of misadventures past. One dark and stormy midnight in my previous incarnation as ink-stained wretch, I left the newspaper office and headed home to Winterport only to have my car die in front of the Paul Bunyan statue on Bangor’s lower Main Street.

I grabbed the can of starting fluid that I carried for just such a flameout, popped the hood, fiddled  around in the dark to locate the carburetor, held the can at the proper angle, pushed the plunger located on the top of the can — and sprayed my face. On the second try I thought to turn the can 180 degrees, and I hit the target squarely. The clunker started and I drove the short distance back to the shop to wash the diethyl ether and assorted petroleum hydrocarbons from my eyes.

Now, as I read the fine print on a latter-day can of the fluid I find that not only is the stuff not to be taken internally, it also should not be sprayed into one’s face. Who knew?

. . .

In last week’s column dealing with variations of the English spelling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s name, a typographical error instigated by a computer glitch made it appear that three new spellings had been added to a list that ABC News has reported stands at 112.

Some quotation marks that departed Limestone in good shape got fundamentally transformed in their cyberspace journey to Bangor, arriving at the newspaper as weird hieroglyphics. In the editing process to correct the garbled punctuation, the letter “i” in the Libyan strongman’s last name was inadvertently dropped in three instances.

For the record, the Los Angeles Times spells the name “Moammar Kadafi,” while Reuters, the Manchester Guardian and the BBC use “Muammar Gaddafi” and ABC News prefers “Moammar Gaddafi.”

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at

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