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Should I Be Worried About My Earphones?

After about a month of using my earphones, I absent-mindedly checked the package to see the following warning: "This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm." Should I be worried?

Such warnings have become ubiquitous as a result of California’s Proposition 65, a well-intentioned law that has gone haywire and has caused undue anxiety among consumers. The intent was to protect people from exposure to potentially toxic substances, a noble effort. Any substance that can cause cancer or reproductive problems under some condition is a candidate for being subject to regulation under Proposition 65. The problem is that the law is based on hazard, not risk. Hazard is the innate property of a substance or process to do harm, while risk is a measure of the chance that harm will actually occur.

Safety pins, for example, if they are nickel-plated, will sport a warning because metallic nickel is a carcinogen, as can be demonstrated in animals exposed to huge doses. The chance of anyone developing cancer from handling safety pins, however, is likely to be zero. Proposition 65 does provide for exemptions when “toxins” are present below a certain level, but that level depends on what the specific “toxin” is. Even when the levels are below the limit, manufacturers often plop on the warning just to be on the safe side. Why? Because there have been numerous frivolous lawsuits launched on the basis of businesses supposedly not conforming to the law.

“Bounty hunter” lawyers have kindled legal action by consumer groups against companies such as Starbucks, claiming that the levels of acrylamide in the coffee present a cancer risk and that therefore the coffee should come with a warning. Acrylamide is a naturally occurring byproduct of coffee roasting and is also found in numerous baked and fried foods. Technically, based on studies in which rats are fed unrealistically large doses, it is a carcinogen. But rats are not small humans. A human would have to drink over a hundred cups of coffee a day to approach the dose that causes problems in rodents! According to the US government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the average coffee drinker has just one cup of coffee a day over a 70-year lifetime. It is also unrealistic to consider the acrylamide content of coffee in isolation, given that coffee is a chemically complex mixture and other components in coffee, such as various antioxidants, can mitigate the effects of acrylamide. This is backed up by numerous epidemiological studies following over a million people that have demonstrated that coffee does not cause cancer.

Proposition 65 does not require that the substance being warned about is identified, or that the amount present is quantified. That is why only a guess can be made about the earphone warning. Likely, it is the presence of phthalates, chemicals used to make the insulation around the wires flexible. Reproductive and developmental problems have been seen in rodents fed phthalates, but this is hardly relevant when considering earphone wires. However, in order to avoid being sued, businesses will attach the warning. Since in general it is not economical to produce different labels for California, the warnings appear on items sold elsewhere as well, triggering undue alarm in consumers.

The Proposition 65 warnings are omnipresent, even seen at the entrance to a Disneyland resort. It may refer to some lawn chemical or some fire retardant in furniture or a stain repellant on a carpet. Who knows? Does this mean that visiting Disneyland is risky? Hardly. 


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