What Does California's Cancer Warning Mean?

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.

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters!
Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Latest From Consumer Reports

Laundry & cleaning
Best washing machines that cost $800 or lessVideo These workhorses of the laundry room won't break your budget.
Special report: How safe is your ground beef?Video Recalls of bacteria-tainted ground beef are all too frequent.
Hidden helpers in your phone are at your fingertips Smartphone functionality has zoomed way beyond driving directions.
Model S P85D
Tesla Model S P85D breaks our Ratings systemVideo This brutally quick luxury electric car earned a perfect road-test score.
Why you shouldn't buy drugs from sites outside of the U.S. There are safer ways to save on your prescription drug costs.
Consumer Reports
Interested in joining the Consumer Reports Board? Get details on applying for service on our board of directors.


and safety with
subscribers and fans

Follow us on:


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more