Prop 65 is over 30 years old, established in November 1986 in California - also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Non Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. The law was originally meant to protect Californians from pollutants in drinking water—a response to a series of oil spills and reports of chemical contamination risks in the state.
The act requires products sold in the state of California to include prominent warning labels if they contain any of a list of a extensive list of ingredients known to cause cancer, reproductive harm, or birth defects.
But should you worry if you see a Prop 65 label on a product? Let's find out.
Why The Controversy?
The law has been heavily criticized for causing unneeded worry and over-warning about cancer and reproductive risks.
Unfortunately, the act has become something of a running joke, appearing in coffee shops, parking garages, hotels, dentist's offices, and even Disney Land.
In 2016, a judge ruled that cofeee and coffee shops like Starbucks must include a Prop 65 warning. This is because roasted coffee beans contain acrylamide, a chemical that's present when some foods are heated, in particular plant-based foods. Frying, roasting, or baking foods can cause the formation of acrylamide, and it will only be found in trace amounts.
However, the ruling on coffee shops was overturned in 2019, meaning the label was no longer required. It was ruled that the trace amounts of the chemical would not be a risk and therefore coffee was given an exemption.
In the case of parking garages, its because they can contain concentrated amounts of car exhaust. You can find the warning on virtually everything, from clothing to electronics to suitcases and all alcohol.
The widespread use of Prop 65 labels has become a problem. Let's find out why.
The Problem With Prop 65
Because of the prolific use of warning labels on products, the law has had some adverse effects.
- The widespread use of the label has created something of a "boy who cried wolf" scenario, desensitizing consumers to cancer risks. If you see these warnings everywhere, it can cause you to just ignore them altogether.
- It misleads people away from things that have a much higher cancer risk, like smoking, a poor diet, and a lack of physical exercise.
- Businesses with fewer than 10 employees are exempt. It seems like an arbitrary cutoff, but the likely reason for this is to protect small businesses from the heavy fees required to have products lab tested.
What Prop 65 Has Accomplished
Despite the potential "over-warning", Prop 65 is credited for significantly reducing exposure to toxic chemicals. Enforcement of the law and public records of enforcement actions shows that its forced many companies to reformulate the ingredients in their products, often invisibly. Although the law targets only California, its had benefits for people all over the US, not just the Golden State.
As tracked by the U.S. Toxins Release Inventory, there was an ~85% reduction in airborne emissions of chemicals listed in the law's list of banned chemicals. Compared to the national rate of ~50%, Prop 65 has been widely credited for the reduction.
It's true that the bill has caused a great net positive effect on our environment and personal safety.
The Ingredients Included In Prop 65
Prop 65's has grown from a small list of 85 chemicals since its inception to the current list of 800+ substances that are banned in products for sale in California.
The list is extensive, but includes ingredients like heavy metals, pesticides, steroids, dyes, solvents, and more. Many of the included chemicals would not be present in the final product, but are used in its production, giving risk of water contamination.
The list is reviewed every year, and is constantly updated with new ingredients. It's worth noting that starting in 1999, about 26 chemicals have been removed from the list after previously being listed.
You can browse the full list of banned chemicals in the Prop 65 list on the official website.
So, Should You Worry About a Prop 65 Label?
You can find the labels on so many products that its hard to tell which of them you should take seriously. For example, because it's a "one size fits all" label, you'll find the warning on bags of potato chips because they contain acrylamide. You'll also find acrylamide in roasted veggies and coffee, along with chemotherapy and toxic waste.
Often, products that bear the label have small, trace amounts of banned substances. You'll find the warning on products with power cables or stryofoam, but chances are you won't be eating them any time soon.
On the other hand, several dangerous fragrance chemicals are on the list, along with known carcinogens you'll find in some beauty and personal care products.
The way we see it is this: If you see a Prop 65 warning on a product you might eat or put on your skin, take a closer look at it. Check the ingredients for anything that might be suspicious—beauty and personal care are a good example of this.
However, you'll find these labels on things like electronics and cables, which you probably shouldn't worry about.
If a personal care or beauty product has the label, it does mean that there are at least trace amounts of an ingredient that has been linked to cancer or reproductive harm. However, in many cases these ingredients are trace amounts. Many times, the risk of harm was found only in animal studies where massive amounts of the ingredient were given to the animal.
Be cautious and check ingredients, but don't overly worry about the Prop 65 label, which can often times be needlessly alarming.