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I like to know what is in my food and products, so on the surface, Prop 65 is an amazing law. A label that tells me when a product contains harmful chemicals? A dream come true! But after seeing the warning on many of the natural health products I use (like supplements), I did some digging. I’ve found that there are some concerns with California Prop 65 that may make it less than helpful.
What is California Prop 65?
Prop 65 or the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 was voted into law by a landslide (63 percent). The intention of this law was to allow Californians to make informed choices about the products they buy and use.
The law requires companies to notify Californians about significant amounts of chemicals in the products they manufacture. Prop 65 also prohibits California businesses from knowingly releasing significant amounts of listed chemicals into or near drinking water sources.
The list of potentially problematic chemicals, compounds, and metals covered by Proposition 65 has grown to more than 900 since 1986.
New Prop 65 Requirements
Originally Prop 65 required companies to put a warning on their product’s label if there was one or more of the listed chemicals in the product. It would look like one or both of these:
WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer.
WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm.
Obviously, the warning doesn’t mention the specific substance or any other information about it. Opponents to the requirements argue that these warnings may be alarming consumers being helpful since they don’t provide enough information for context.
New regulations adopted in 2016 addressed some of these concerns by rewording the warning:
WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including (name of one or more chemicals), which is (are) known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.
The short version (for very small labels) reads:
WARNING: Cancer and Reproductive Harm – www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.
The new requirements also added a large yellow triangle with black exclamation point to make the warning more noticeable.
Though the new label is more specific and offers some additional information, it still may be less than helpful for consumers.
Benefits of Prop 65
It makes sense why this act was voted into law so overwhelmingly. Our environment is more toxic than ever and our food is following in its footsteps. We live in a world where large corporations are abusing natural resources, putting undesirable ingredients in food, and aren’t being held accountable. Prop 65 gives consumers a chance to know when something they are about to eat or touch contains chemicals that could be harmful.
Prop 65 doesn’t try to control what businesses are putting in their products. Its mission is to give consumers informed consent. In order to make good choices for ourselves and our families we need to know what’s in our food. However, some companies are choosing to reduce the level of chemicals in their products to avoid having to use the warning label, which is a good thing for consumers.
Companies that are using the warning label on their products don’t want to create separate packaging for California-bound products so those in other states benefit from the label as well.
California Prop 65 Controversy
Though the premise behind Prop 65 makes sense, there are some serious problems with the law.
No (Easy) Distinction Between Substances
Prop 65 doesn’t make a distinction between substances that are man-made (like paint, batteries, and exhaust) and those that are naturally found (like in soil and crops). For example, lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal found in natural products like produce. So organic cocoa powder, bentonite clay, or even collard greens would be in the same category as lead paint!
A substance like lead is less harmful when it’s naturally occurring as it is already bonded to another element (unlike lead in paint, cosmetics, etc. which is unbonded, bioavailable, and can accumulate in the body).
There is a “naturally occurring” exemption that companies can apply for, but the conditions are rigorous and the burden of proof is on the company. Many companies just label their products to avoid the hassle and expense, according to this article on the Consumer Products Law Blog.
Safe Harbor Levels Are Misleading
In an article titled “Pending California Lawsuit Has Industry in Waiting,” the writer explains that safe harbor levels for chemicals are set at 1000 times less than the level where no observable harm was found. (This information is available directly from California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment website as well.) While a warning about toxic substances seems like a good thing, it leaves consumers without real information about what harm these substances can actually do at the levels in the product.
It may even cause some to ignore the warnings and not take them seriously.
Potentially Bad for Small Business
Because Prop 65 has a citizen-suit provision, a lawyer can begin a claim “in the public’s interest” against a company. (They don’t need a “victim” or any evidence of harm.) These litigators are often referred to bounty hunters.
According to this article, over $150 million in attorney fees has been paid out since 2000. Though large corporations can absorb the cost of these suits, it is likely to hurt smaller businesses (like the ones that provide healthy, natural foods and supplements).
Hasn’t Improved Californians’ Health
If the point of Prop 65 is to improve Californians’ health, then it would make sense that there would be a measurable improvement over the last 30 years. Unfortunately research doesn’t support this. A Chemistry World article explains that Prop 65 hasn’t improved the health of Californians, at least in relation to cancer rates.
Of course, 30 years may just not be long enough to see improvement, considering how toxic our world is. However, no decrease in cancer rates is still a significant finding and something to consider.
Prop 65: What to Do
Take a Prop 65 warning as just that: a warning. Use that warning as a jumping off point for more research.
- Check company websites for more information. When looking at a product with the Prop 65 label, try to find out more details on the company’s website. Take anything you read with a grain of salt (they benefit from their product being seen as healthy), but don’t ignore the information they give. Their website may give you more context to the nature of the chemical or substance in the product and whether it is naturally occurring.
- Always research new products. There are many companies out there doing amazing things in the natural health arena. Look at their business practices and how they create, manufacture, or harvest their product. The more transparent the better.
- Make detoxing a regular part of your life. Avoiding added toxins is obviously best, but they’re still going to be around. Detox baths or supplements that help the body detox are a great way to reduce the harm of toxins in our environment.
Though the California Prop 65 seems like something all states should do, it can go overboard. Many companies would rather over-label than face an expensive lawsuit. Though Prop 65 has lined the pockets of so-called bounty hunters, it may not have improved Californians’ health.
Do you think Prop 65 warnings have been helpful to you? What has been your experience?
Discussion (12 Comments)
Just a correction: lead in paint wasn’t “unbonded” aka elemental lead, it was various salts of differing toxicity and solubility. It’s actually waaaay worse in almost any salt (“bonded”) form as your body can actually absorb it. Elemental lead without oxidation is surprisingly non-toxic, but without alloying it forms an oxide layer over time. I made stained glass windows for years and we’d regularly go most of the day not bothering to wash the layer of lead dust off our hands and nobody ever showed elevated lead levels in blood tests let alone dangerous amounts.
White lead paint was the main problem because it had a slightly sweet taste so kids were more likely to eat it and the carbonate is slightly soluble in water so it accumulates. It was originally made with a naturally occurring mineral, btw. The source doesn’t matter, the compound does.
Thanks for this! I just bought a treadmill and it has this warning on it. Totally freaking me out! Does the benefit of exercising on it (especially during cold winter days) outweigh the potential risk? I’m especially worried about offgassing. Thanks!
I do think that these products should be able to label their products in such a way that it tells you what it has in them that’s required the Prop65 label, the amount, and how much of that chemical you would need to consume for it to be harmful. Also, natural products containing naturally-occurring lead should be able to state on their product why this lead is safe to consume.
So for a product like Nutiva protein powder which has the label you wouldn’t be deterred to use? Even if pregnant?
I also live in California and I am completely fed up with it. A few years ago I refinished my kitchen cabinets. I was unable to get the best products for striping and refinishing due to prop 65. I am a beginner potter and wanted to buy some glazes from a company in Massachusetts but they won’t ship here due to the labeling requirement. Too expensive for a small business to comply. Prop 65 warnings are EVERYWHERE on EVERYHTING and it means nothing, because a person can’t breath, eat, drive, work, walk on pavement or do anything but live in a bubble to avoid some chemical or another.
I worked for a sprinkler manufacturer when Prop 65 was implemented. We didn’t want to have to label our products as dangerous, so we took all the steps we could to get lead out of the alloys used. The test involved wearing special gloves while handling the product for a certain amount of time, then sending the glove in to be tested for lead. After several failures, we removed the white glove from the packaging and sent it back without touching a product. It still failed. So either the amount of lead allowed in products is the minuscule amount naturally occurring in the environment, or the test labs are making a lot of money off failing products for Prop 65. It was a fairly small company, so they chose to label product at that point rather than sink millions of dollars into attorney fees to fight it.
Thank you, lawyers benefit and no improvements in cancer rates plus small farmers pay the price, Califirnia is so over regulated there is a mass exidous to lower taxed states.
Details are important on new laws. They arent always as they appear.
I live in California and really can’t imagine living anywhere else. But, yes, these Prop 65 warnings are everywhere. Coffee shop, vitamin shop, when I buy tea/herbals from my favorite online place in Oregon, because it is required in California. So, because I see such randomness and I usually buy things that are healthy, even when I see this warning, I kind of smile and wave it off. I think it was started with good intentions, but now everything that might have something harmful in it has a warning. Strangely enough, the coffee pods that we used to use in my household until we realized that we were basically drinking plastic, don’t have a warning. At least, last time I checked.
I also live in California & I completely agree. The warnings are on practically everything so you get desensitized to them. They are even at the grocery store checkout line to warn you that something in your cart could be hazardous, which is obviously not helpful.
Maybe if the warning was more specific or took concentration levels into consideration I would actually take the warnings seriously, but currently I do not. Nor do I know anyone who does. It’s kind of a running joke. Coffee is just one example – since the chemical of concern is created during the roasting process. It is what causes things to brown as they cook. It’s also present in hash browns or toast among many other things & I don’t believe the levels present in your cup of coffee (or toast or hash browns) is toxic. The only way to avoid this chemical would be to not cook your food and eat everything raw.
I like the idea of Prop 65 but as with many pieces of legislation, the reality fell far short.
While none of these novel measures are perfect out the gate, I would think that any of the criticisms you present in this post are unconcerning “sacrifices” to make when the main outcome would be to keep consumers informed about the toxins they’re constantly consuming. If they have anxiety attacks about the labeling, or choose not to buy a product as a result even if the contaminants are “naturally occurring” (I’d personally like to know if lead is in something, even if it’s bentonite clay)…that is their personal response and I don’t see why we need to protect them from those reactions. To me it is a no-brainer that this measure is a step in the right direction, and I am honestly kind of confused by the cautions presented in this post, particularly from such a respected health-promoting pioneer like you.
There are documentaries on Amazon prime that shows food companies pay off FDA, Congress, etc. Have you thought of this one: what if food corporations own hospitals? The food makes you sick, you go to hospital, they make money for both companies. Good luck on Prop 65.