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What does California's cancer warning mean?

The state requires manufacturers to label products that contain certain chemicals

Consumer Reports magazine: March 2013

What does California know that you don’t? Readers from all over have long wondered at this or a similar warning: “This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.”

They’ve seen the words on products as varied as a flashlight, an eyeglass repair kit, a beach ball, a garden hose, a fishing rod, and—more troubling—on a coffee cup, a water bottle, a steering wheel cover, and an ointment to treat diaper rash. “We certainly want what’s best for baby,” said a New Yorker who bought the ointment, “so this product is going right in the trash!” In California the warning is even placed on some buildings.

What’s up? The answer is Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. It was a California ballot initiative (voted on by the public) and requires the governor to publish an annual list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm. The latest list includes hundreds of chemicals from A-alpha-C to zileuton. (Among the better-known entries are asbestos, benzene, lead, PCBs, and several phthalates.)

Manufacturers must include the warning if exposure to one or more of those chemicals exceeds “safe harbor levels” adopted by the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Prop 65 lists four things that can prompt the listing of a chemical. If evidence changes, chemicals may be delisted.

Although the warning is required only on products sold in California, companies may use it on all of their products to avoid creating different packaging for sales in that state.

Bottom line. “Consumers can decide on their own if they want to purchase or use” a product that bears a Prop 65 warning, says the OEHHA. Although the wording certainly gets your attention, it may not mean that the product violates a federal safety standard. Since businesses aren’t required to say exactly why a warning is on their product, the agency suggests that a concerned buyer contact the manufacturer to find out. The list of covered chemicals is available at the OEHHA website.

   

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