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California Prop 65: What It Really Means

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.

Bottom Line

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?




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