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Of Toxic Earphones, Washing Machines, Sex Toys and Wolves at the Door

Thanks to California’s Proposition 65, numerous consumer items sport a warning that they contain chemicals that can cause cancer. Should items with this warning be avoided?
Image by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.

Over the years I have answered, or at least tried to have answered, a staggering variety of questions. “Is it true that KFC is made from mutant laboratory chickens and not real chickens?” No. “Can you get cancer by riding your bike on a street where there are power lines?” No evidence for that. “Instead of buying a water alkalizer for $3000, can I make alkaline water using baking soda?” Yes, but it is irrelevant because the claims made for alkaline water hold no water. How do you open a cremation urn with a stuck lid? With great difficulty.

I try to keep a record of questions I have been asked and I thought it would be interesting to wade through them to see if there is one topic that has aroused the most curiosity. Indeed there is. More questions have been asked about a warning on some commercial products stating that they “contain chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer or reproductive harm” than about anything else. And that includes how to get rid of rust stains in a bathtub, which used to be a standard question.

What were the items that had these warnings that sent people into panicville? Earphones, purses, washing machines, dehumidifiers, rowing machines, kettles, irons, cacao nibs and sex toys. Generally, people were shocked to see the warning and wondered how items that cause cancer can be sold to the public. How can they return the item without exposing themselves further to the cancer-causing chemicals, was a common question. Let’s do a little analysis.

Such warnings about cancer or reproductive harm 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. Eventually reason ruled, and coffee was excused from having to be labeled as a carcinogen, which it clearly is not.

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 warning on earphones. Lead in any solder used would be enough to warrant it. As far as the cacao nibs go, a trace of naturally occurring cadmium would do it. In sex toys, it could be the phthalates, used to soften the plastic. Phthalates have been shown to cause reproductive and developmental problems when fed to rodents, but that is quite a different matter from handling objects that contain phthalates. These chemicals are also used as plasticizers in the insulation around wires such as in washing machines. Sex toys are not one of life’s necessities, but washing machines are. And there is no need to fear them. Still, 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. Proposition 65 can be likened to crying wolf. The risk is that when the real wolf comes to the door nobody will pay listen.


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