California Chemical Laws Fail Science Test

Every day, we make choices that carry a degree of risk. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for those under 44, but that doesn’t stop us from getting behind the wheel. While we can’t completely reduce our risk of a crash, we can lower it by avoiding risky behaviors like speeding recklessly or texting.

Yet despite the potential deadliness of an automobile crash, car makers aren’t required to put a safety label on vehicles. And even if they did, it’s unlikely that we’d see a dramatic decline in the number of car crashes. It’s curious then that California law requires warning labels on products that pose dramatically less risk.

When California citizens went to the polls in 1986, it probably seemed like a no-brainer to vote for a law that required manufacturers and businesses to warn consumers when they might be exposed to chemicals that could cause cancer or developmental defects. The law, known as Proposition 65, sounds like an excellent public health initiative in theory. In execution, however, the law has created warning label overload.

There are myriad problems with the law. But in a new paper on Proposition 65, I’ve identified two fatal flaws with Proposition 65’s procedures: the threshold for determining whether a chemical poses a health risk is incredibly low, with no way of explaining to consumers the degree of risk exposure to the chemical poses, and the process for determining which chemicals require warning labels is alarmingly unstandardized.

For starters, a chemical earns a place on the state’s list of dangerous chemicals if California regulators find that exposure causes one excess case of cancer in 100,000 individuals over a 70 year period.

To put that in perspective, roughly one in 100,000 people will die from running or playing soccer. At the same time, research has shown that exercise can lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and a number of deadly health ailments.

This is precisely why Proposition 65 warning labels are ridiculous — there’s no context for what level of exposure poses an actual risk and when a chemical might actually have health benefits.

Take seafood for example. Researchers have suggested that consuming fish and shellfish has numerous health benefits. They contain a number of essential nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, but almost all fish contains at least a small amount of mercury. In fact, recent research suggests that consumption of fish by pregnant mothers might actually boost brain development and has no impact on prenatal development.

Mercury is listed as a carcinogen under Proposition 65. Therefore fish in California comes with a warning label.

Scaring consumers away from fish flies directly in the face of U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s advice that “Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet.” According to the FDA, “for most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern.” Yet California’s Proposition 65 warnings indicate otherwise to consumers — research suggests the prominent warning labels in restaurants and markets where fish is sold have resulted in a dramatic decline in fish consumption.

This begs the question: How are California’s regulators determining which chemicals are harmful? Unfortunately, as I’ve explained in my new paper, there appears to be no consistent or standardized testing protocols for what constitutes sufficient evidence to label a chemical as either carcinogenic or causing developmental harm. That’s why the state’s chemical decisions can contradict opinions rendered by the FDA, EPA, and other regulatory agencies across the globe. Chemicals are listed even if the scientific consensus isn’t on the state’s side.

To truly make Californians healthier, the state needs to develop a standardized process, ideally with input from outside experts, for determining which chemicals should be listed and explaining the actual risk to consumers. After all, it’s more likely that taking car rides will have you swimming with the fishes than eating fish will put you six feet under.

Dr. Joseph Perrone, Sc.D., is the Chief Science Officer at the Center for Accountability in Science, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education. CORE is supported by a wide variety of businesses and foundations, including those in the hospitality, agriculture, and energy industries.