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If you live in the state of California, purchase goods manufactured there, or shop at large online retailers who distribute to all U.S. states, you’ve probably seen a Prop 65 “cancer warning” label. They can be found on everyday items like jewelry, light bulbs, electronics, and even fresh produce or other food products.

So, Just What is Prop 65?
Proposition 65 was passed in California in 1986. Officially deemed the “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act,” the law aimed to prevent businesses from dumping harmful chemicals into waterways, but the scope is much larger than water pollution. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Prop 65 requires businesses to notify consumers about “significant amounts of chemicals in the products they purchase, in their homes or workplaces, or that are released into the environment.” Any chemical that California has decided could be carcinogenic or which may cause reproductive harm is included in this legislation.

Missing Information
Experts advise that Prop 65 warning labels don’t tell you everything you need to know.

  • They don’t tell you what kind of toxic chemical you may be exposed to. There are currently over 800 chemicals on the Prop 65 list, which have very different effects and levels of toxicity.

  • They don’t tell you the concentrations of chemicals involved. Oftentimes, California requires warnings even when the levels are far below what is considered safe levels of exposure and acceptable by federal legislation.

  • They don’t tell you how you may be exposed. Different chemicals present different hazards – touch, inhalation, ingestion, etc.

Why Are You Seeing These Labels Outside of California?
For many manufacturers, the same distribution channels serve all fifty States. From a practical standpoint, manufacturers cannot predict which exact product may end up being sold in California, so they place warnings on all of their products to avoid potential litigation. So, consumer products in other states may also contain warning labels.

So, What Should You Do?
You should always be aware and take caution with any type of product warning. Does a Prop 65 warning mean that the product is harmful or will actually cause cancer when used in its intended way? Not necessarily. Prop 65 standards for warnings for some chemicals are very stringent. For example, the level at which a warning is mandated is often 1,000 times lower than what is thought to be a “safe” level. A Prop 65 warning does not automatically mean that the product is unsafe.

If you see a Prop 65 warning, and you feel concerned, contact the manufacturer or individual retailer’s customer service for more information. You can get additional information from websites like the Environmental Working Group or the Centers for Disease Control.