It's no secret that drinkers risk alcoholism, liver disease, and death or injury in car accidents. But did you know that alcohol also is responsible for fetal alcohol syndrome, a leading cause of mental retardation in the United States?

Only about half of Americans have ever heard of fetal alcohol syndrome, according to a 1985 government survey, which no doubt is why its incidence remains so tragically high.Fetal alcohol syndrome is the second leading cause of mental retardation in the U.S. and the third leading cause of birth defects that can be accompanied by mental retardation. Of these three leading disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome is the only one that is preventable. Yet 15,000 babies a year are born with this defect, which is characterized by low birth weight and facial disfigurement as well as retardation.

We make this point because a Senate consumer subcommittee has been holding hearings this week on a bill that would require all alcoholic beverage containers to be marked with one of five warning labels on a rotating basis. One of those labels would read:

"WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that the consumption of this product, which contains alcohol, during pregnancy can cause mental retardation and other birth defects."

Such a warning is in order not just because fetal alcohol syndrome is so relatively serious and unknown, but also because it can result from the consumption of as little as one or two alcoholic beverages a day.

The proposed warning label could help avert tragedy for thousands of parents and children. The bill deserves speedy approval.