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SALT LAKE CITY — Many consumers have seen a label that says, "This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer." Just how much danger, if any, does the product pose?
Sheryn Daugherty was quite pleased with her new pair of hiking pants until she read the label saying they contain a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects.
"I instantly thought well, why would this even be on the market?" she said.
Daugherty bought the pants in Utah. Why would the state of California have anything to say about what material is used?
"One of my friends just joked and said, 'Don't wear them in California and you're good,'" Daugherty said.
She asked why California apparently is the only state that requires this sort of warning. If a product is dangerous there it's dangerous everywhere, right?
The warning stems from California's ballot initiative, Proposition 65, passed back in 1986. It requires anyone who manufactures or distributes a product sold in California that contains a material on a list of some 800 chemicals to include a warning label.
We put her question to Steven Christiansen, an attorney who was practicing environmental law in California when Prop. 65 passed.
"They have the authority to impose a fine up to $2,500 per day for violations," he said.
Christiansen said even a trace amount of a listed chemical can trigger the required warning. It is seen on products sold outside California because manufacturers want to save money.
- Called the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986
- Enacted as a ballot initiative in November 1986
- Intended to protect California citizens and the State's drinking water sources from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and to inform citizens about exposures to such chemicals
- Requires the governor to publish, at least annually, a list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity
"They find it's easier and more cost effective just to place the Prop 65 warning on all their products rather than just place them on the ones going into California," he explained.
Should consumers be concerned about the label? Christiansen thinks so, though he notes much of the list contains chemicals already regulated by the FDA and EPA.
"That's one of the kind of knocks against Prop 65 is that some people feel like it's a bit of overkill, because California isn't really accomplishing a whole lot more than what's already being done by federal agencies," he said.
The manager of a Utah-based facility that specializes in the analysis of chemicals in waters, soils and hazardous chemicals said just because a cancer-linked chemical is present in a product, it doesn't mean it's at a harmful level.
Take Coke and Pepsi, for example. Manufacturers recently changed their caramel coloring to avoid the Prop 65 label even though the FDA had said before the changes it would take more than 1,000 cans of pop a day to reach doses shown to lead to cancer in mice.
Daugherty said she's keeping those "toxic" hiking pants but still takes the label seriously.
"So I'm glad to see the label. It's on there so we do know what we're getting," she said.
In California the labels are posted in bars, restaurants, coffee shops, schools, apartment buildings and on scores of products. Critics said the label is so overused, it has lost its effect of warning people of legitimate dangers.