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Why does California want to put a cancer warning on coffee?

Proposition 65 rears its ugly head again. This time, for coffee.

I’ve commented many times on what I think is a ludicrous piece of legislation in California known as Proposition 65. This requires that the public be informed by signs, as is the case on entering Disneyland, or on product labels, about any possible exposure to a chemical “that is known to the State of California to cause reproductive harm or cancer.” And there are over 900 of these that are accused of being an affront to health! So what’s wrong with Prop 65 warning against dangerous substances? Sounds like motherhood and apple pie. What is wrong is that Prop 65 essentially ignores the cornerstone of toxicology, namely that type of exposure and extent of exposure matters.

Last week a judge in California ruled that Prop 65 has to be applied to coffee because the beverage contains traces of acrylamide, a “carcinogen.” Acrylamide is actually a naturally occurring substance that forms whenever any substance that contains glucose and the amino acid asparagine is heated. It is found in breads, cereals, cookies, French fries, prune juice, roasted nuts, cocoa and yes, coffee beans. Acrylamide can indeed cause cancer in rodents, but only when the animals are continuously exposed to amounts at least 1000 times greater than is found in coffee. That, though, isn’t even the major point to be made.

The fact is that no epidemiological investigation has linked coffee consumption to cancer. Millions of people around the world consume coffee regularly and if there were a connection to cancer, it would have revealed itself. Actually, studies have shown that coffee may be protective against disease, Parkinson’s being an example. Of course, the warning posted on coffee will be ignored, as it should be. But the bounty-hunting lawyers will make money with claims that the public has been exposed to a carcinogen without its knowledge. That judge could have used a course in toxicology.

A final note. Proposition 65 has been in effect for over 30 years. It is reasonable to think that Californians would have heeded the cautions over the years to avoid products and places that feature the ubiquitous warnings. After all, Californians are smart, they know things the rest of the world doesn’t. But cancer rates in California are comparable to numerous other states despite the fact that California has the second lowest rate of smokers in the whole country. So go ahead and enjoy that cup of coffee, even in California. Just don’t put the hot cup between your legs as you drive away. But that’s another story.


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