What comes to mind when you see the Biohazard symbol?
You have certainly seen it many times and now cannot remember where, but you would do well to keep it in mind.
It is called the Biohazard symbol, a name that says it all!
Is this still unclear? Let Dan Brown explain:
This notorious symbol, Langdon had once read, was developed by Dow Chemical in the 1960s to replace an array of impotent warning graphics previously in use. Like all successful symbols, this one was simple, distinctive, and easy to reproduce. Cleverly conjuring associations with everything from crab pincers to ninja hurling knives, the modern “biohazard” symbol had become a global brand that conveyed danger in every language.
Meaning of the word biohazard
For the purpose of this symbol, the term “biohazard” is defined as one of “those infectious agents presenting a risk or potential risk to the well-being of man, either directly through his infection or indirectly through disruption of his environment.”
What is the meaning of this biological symbol?
In short, the biohazard symbol is used universally to report harmful substances that are particularly dangerous for living beings. The symbol is an image that warns people of possible exposure to biological substances that may consist of viruses, toxins, or medical waste (such as blood, body fluids, and human cell lines).
It is used internationally to indicate the actual or potential presence of a biohazard and to identify equipment, containers, rooms, materials, experimental animals, or combinations there of that can be obtained commercially. The symbol is placed upon a placard that is large enough for the symbol and other appropriate information.
Usually printed on the labels of chemicals, and while retaining the same meaning, the symbol may display different colors, backgrounds, borders, or additional information about the type of danger it poses.
It can be black, fluorescent orange, or orange-red. Background color is optional so long as there is sufficient contrast to ensure that the biohazard symbol is clearly defined.
Appropriate wording may be used in association with the symbol to indicate the nature or identity of the hazard, the name of individuals responsible for its control, and precautionary information, etc., but information should never be superimposed on the symbol.
History of the biohazard symbol
The biohazard symbol has a rich and fascinating history. While it seems abstract at first glance, both biologists and laymen can quickly and easily grasp its warning.
Only fifty years ago, the symbol was entirely unknown, but today we see the biohazard symbol in clinics, labs, and even on skateboards!
This now-ubiquitous symbol was created with some thorough testing and decision-making by scientists and psychologists over 40 years ago.
According to articles in the New York Times and in the Science journal, the biohazard symbol was created by Charles L. Baldwin of Dow Chemicals and Robert S. Runkle of the National Institutes of Health in 1966.
Baldwin had been working with Dow Chemical on developing containment systems for the Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, when he noticed there were several different warning symbols in use. He figured this variation was actually dangerous—people couldn’t be expected to know the full range of icons and labels—so he set about designing a universal symbol with the help of the Dow Marketing and Packaging Design department. The logo wasn’t designed with any symbolism in mind—rather, it had to be meaningless—but it needed to be memorable for easy recognition.
Baldwin began to work on ideas for the new symbol. Instead of consulting his own colleagues, he went to the Dow Marketing and Package Design department. Together they tested common and recognizable symbols mixed with half a dozen of their original and new symbols across the country. They asked people to look at them and then guess what each one meant. The biohazard symbol got the fewest guesses.
They then went back one week later to the same set of people and the same set of symbols, and asked them which of these they remembered most. They selected the biohazard symbol!
After extensive research, Baldwin and his team produced what they believed to be the perfect warning symbol for biohazards. Its blazing orange background and perfectly symmetrical symbol stood out and avoided confusion. Its bold color and simple design made a tremendous impact on everyone.
After publicizing the symbol in the Science journal, it was immediately authorized by the US Center for Disease Control, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the National Institutes of Health as universal, and it has been in existence ever since.
The criteria used to develop the biohazard symbol
After a series of studies, tests, and designs, the biohazard symbol was created to meet the following fundamental criteria:
- an appearance that attracts attention
- well defined and unambiguous
- easily recognizable and easy to store
- simple in design
- symmetric in order to be identical when seen from different angles
- acceptable to a wide variety of ethnic groups.
The color and configuration of the symbol weren’t arbitrary, but were chosen very carefully. It’s not red (or black) but a fiery orange, adapted from Arctic exploration colors, as they were the most visible under most conditions.
The design was three-sided so that there is no “right way up”—if the symbol were put on a container, that container might end up on its side or upside down, and it was vital that the symbol remain recognizable.
The symbol is often portrayed on a yellow background, usually in a triangle, but that was never part of the original brief. The only prerequisite was that there be sufficient contrast for the symbol to stand out against the background of whatever it’s sitting on.
While modern, the Biohazard symbol is inspired by one of the oldest symbols of humanity: the Triskele.
The Triskele symbol represents a being with three legs (more generally, three intertwined spirals) or by extension, any other symbol with three protrusions and a threefold rotational symmetry.
The origin of this symbol is so old that it is unknown; however, the symbol has spread ubiquitously throughout history.
A universal feature of the various versions of the Triskele is its role as a vehicle of cosmic force.
Accordingly, the Biohazard symbol was designed purely to symbolize a subtle and invisible force that acts through organisms or the parts of organisms, namely: bacteria, viruses with enormous generative power, and contaminant agents, conveyed by the atmosphere or biological fluids.
The Triskele is often used in tattoos as well as the Biohazard symbol.
What does a biohazard tattoo symbolize?
The biohazard symbol is a very widespread tattoo, partly on account of its intriguing graphic form, partly because of what it represents: it is usually tattooed with an ironic significance in mind. It has been adopted also by the gay community as a way of telling people they are infected with HIV or AIDS. Instead of the symbol being used in a negative way, it is used to raise awareness for the disease.
As you know, Robert Langdon is a professor of symbology and in the novel Inferno there are many more symbols… remember the Caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius?
This post was originally published on October 30, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on July 13, 2016.
Biohazard Level 4 by Simon Strandgaard (CC BY 2.0)
Manaw Isle of Mann by giveawayboy (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Triskele detail, the stone at Newgrange by Annie Gormlie (CC BY-NC 2.0).