You've seen the label. But what does it actually mean?

Why Does My Food or Beverage Have a Prop 65 Warning?

Science

Have you ever been at the grocery store, flipped around a product and saw a Prop 65 warning, and thought to yourself "Hmmmm… I remember reading about this, but what does it actually mean? Do I have to pay attention to it? Why is it on everything I like?!"

The Prop 65 warning label has gained national attention since it was signed into law in the 1980s because of its unique ability to educate consumers on risk and exposure. But since it appears on a ton of seemingly unrelated products like chocolate, appliances, and protein powder, it can often be dismissed as a scare tactic. Does the Prop 65 label need to be taken seriously when it comes to your food and beverages? We have everything you need to know.

What is Prop 65

In 1986, Californians voted in favor of the The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, aka Prop 65. This act requires businesses "to provide warnings to Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm… prohibits California businesses from knowingly discharging significant amounts of listed chemicals into sources of drinking water… and requires California to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm" (1).

This list of chemicals, which has to be updated once a year, has grown to approximately 900 chemicals (1) and features a wide arrange of chemicals and substances, from the well-known benzene and asbestos, to some you might have never even heard of, like cyclophosphamide and dichloromethane. Warnings about significant exposures come in the form of labels on products and a sign posted at a workplace, business, or rental housing.

In order to determine whether or not a product needs a warning label, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment determined safe harbor levels for many chemicals on the Prop 65 list. If a chemical exceeds a predetermined level in a product, then it needs a warning level and each chemical has a different level. There are two safe harbor levels: "No Significant Risk Levels" for cancer-causing chemicals and "Maximum Allowable Dose Levels" for chemicals that cause birth defects or other reproductive harm (2).

Prop 65 warnings on Food, Beverages, and Supplements

If you're familiar with Prop 65 warnings, you're probably not surprised to see it on products in a hardware store. But what about products in a grocery store on something you're about to eat? It can feel pretty weird to see a serious warning label on that hot chocolate you were about to throw into your cart. But the reason certain chemicals appear in products can be a little more complicated, and makes more sense, than you might think. Take acrylamide for instance: it's on the Prop 65 list as a cancer-causing chemical but it can form naturally on the surface of certain plant-based foods after it's been browned during cooking at high temperatures (34). Products containing ingredients like roasted coffee or nuts, toast, or breakfast cereals might warrant a Prop 65 warning if acrylamide levels are high enough, even though the chemical wasn't intentionally added.

Some other common substances of concern include arsenic in rice or seaweed, BPA in plastic or can linings, cadmium in fish or vegetables, lead in supplements or vitamins, and mercury in fish.

While lead, cadmium, and arsenic are naturally occurring in soils and groundwater, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, untreated wastewater, and residues from air pollution are responsible for higher concentrations, where they are absorbed by crops. Contamination can also occur during processing of the food.

Products like supplements and vitamins are at a higher risk of containing harmful chemicals because their manufacturing is not regulated by the FDA. In 2018, the Clean Label Project looked into protein powder and found 75% of the plant-based products tested contained lead. One protein powder tested even contained "25 times the allowed limit of BPA in one serving" (5). In 2016, two deaths were linked to using supplements tainted with lead (6). If you see a Prop 65 warning on a vitamin or supplement, you might want to steer clear of it out of an abundance of caution.

How Prop 65 Helps to Keep you Safe

It's always alarming to see a Prop 65 warning on a food or beverage you want to consume. And if these warning labels are basically everywhere, does it even matter? Is Prop 65 just a nuisance or is it actually beneficial? Let's discuss.

One of the ways Prop 65 protects us is by enforcement via lawsuits. If a product is shown to have chemical levels above the safe harbor level, or if Prop 65 chemicals are present in a product that does not have a warning label, a lawsuit can be filed against the company. There have been over than 5,800 notices of violation and the lawsuits have been "widely documented to reduce human exposure to listed chemicals by forcing reformulation of consumer products, process changes that reduce the presence of Prop 65 chemicals in food, adoption of air emissions controls at industrial facilities, and, to a lesser extent, reduction of toxic discharges to drinking water" (7). In order to comply with these notice of violations, companies must be able to innovate. In fact, Prop 65 litigation has "spurred the development of new technology, materials, or practices, inducing companies to reduce exposure to below levels of significance" (7).

Most importantly, Prop 65 gives consumers the power of knowledge and choice. You're able to know exactly what chemicals you're being exposed to and any associated negative health impacts. The best way to think of Prop 65 is as a suggestion rather than a scary list to avoid at all costs. A Prop 65 warning doesn't mean something shouldn't ever be eaten, but it lets the consumer decide how much and how often they want to expose themselves to these chemicals (3).

What You Should Do

Much like sugar and saturated fats, products with a Prop 65 label should be consumed once in a while as a treat, instead of an everyday staple. Limiting how many Prop 65 chemicals you consume will reduce your exposure and hopefully reduce your risk of harmful health impacts. However, individuals that are more susceptible to health risks, like children or pregnant women, may want to completely avoid consuming products with a Prop 65 label since some of the chemicals on the list (like lead) have no known safe level of exposure.

But above all: knowledge is power! Prop 65 is a great tool to help you stay informed and make decisions about your health.


References

  1. https://www.p65warnings.ca.gov/
  2. https://www.p65warnings.ca.gov/faq/businesses/what-are-safe-harbor-numbers
  3. https://www.p65warnings.ca.gov/fact-sheets/foods
  4. https://www.p65warnings.ca.gov/fact-sheets/acrylamide
  5. https://cleanlabelproject.org/protein-powder-white-paper/
  6. https://www.consumerreports.org/vitamins-supplements/lead-poisoning-from-dietary-supplements/
  7. https://www.ecologylawquarterly.org/print/the-hidden-success-of-a-conspicuous-law-proposition-65-and-the-reduction-of-toxic-chemical-exposures/
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The Mind the Store campaign knows that retailers often need a little push to phase out specific chemicals and products. That's why they're spearheading the fight against harmful consumer products. Mind the Store works with retailers, governments, and individuals to transform the marketplace and create healthier retail choices. To learn more about the work and process, we interviewed Mike Schade, director of Mind the Store.



Because Health: Could you give us a brief overview of how Mind the Store came to be? What are you looking to accomplish?

Mike Schade: In 2013, we launched the Mind the Store campaign to challenge the nation's largest retailers to get tough on toxic chemicals in products and packaging and develop comprehensive safer chemicals policies.

By highlighting leaders and calling out laggards to improve, our campaign works to transform the marketplace and drive a competitive race to the top among the biggest retailers in North America.

Since we launched the campaign, we have convinced some of the nation's biggest retailers like Walmart, the Home Depot, Amazon, and others to phase out numerous toxic chemicals from key products and packaging. These include BPA, phthalates, PFAS, flame retardants, and methylene chloride. And that's just the start!

BH: That's important work! Can you tell us a bit more about why retailers need to protect consumers from harmful chemicals?

MS: It's pretty simple when you think about it. Retailers have the power to decide what products they sell. When you walk into your favorite store, you expect the products on the shelves to be safe. Most folks don't realize that harmful chemicals are hiding in everyday products all around us—from cleaning products and cosmetics to food packaging and electronics.There are many scientific studies on the very serious health hazards certain chemicals can pose.

Consumers also want to know that the products they buy aren't hurting other people or the planet. But these chemicals are also hazardous to the communities, workers, and environment where they're made and eventually disposed of. And unsurprisingly low income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted.

There's also a very strong business case to act! Retailers that are not properly managing chemical risks can lose the trust of their customers, lose market share to competitors, and may even risk facing significant financial liabilities.

BH: A big component of the Mind the Store campaign is your Retail Report Card. What is the Retailer Report Card? What criteria do you use to rank different retailers?

MS: The report card gives grades to leading retailers on the steps they're taking to address highly hazardous chemicals in consumer products. No one wants to earn a letter grade of F or D. It makes them look bad, with customers, with investors, and with the media. So by publicly grading companies, this is encouraging them to improve. You can read more about it here.

As consumers, we have enormous power! In the report card, you can learn about who got A's (like Target and Apple) and who got F's (like Ulta and Starbucks).

Our next scorecard is coming out soon in late March. So stay tuned and be sure to visit it at RetailerReportCard.com!

BH: How have retailers reacted to your report card? Are they receptive to the feedback? What are some changes you're particularly proud of?

MS: Absolutely! Since we launched the campaign seven years ago, and the report card four years ago, we've seen a massive amount of progress among retailers.

One of the first companies we started engaging in the campaign was Target, who in response, launched a chemicals policy restricting toxic chemicals like phthalates, parabens, and formaldehyde releasers in beauty, baby, and personal care products. They've made a lot of progress, and have continued to expand their policy year over year.

And since Target first launched its policy, other retailers like Walgreens, Rite Aid, and Sephora have targeted many of the same chemicals for restriction in beauty and personal care products.

BH: It sounds like shopping at retailers with better grades is a simple way to protect ourselves, in addition to supporting companies that we know make better products! Overall, what are three changes Mind the Store wants to see from all retailers?

MS: We believe there are many changes retailers should make, but most importantly…

  1. Companies should have comprehensive safer chemicals policies, with lists of chemicals they're restricting and phasing out, and requiring suppliers to disclose ingredients to them and to consumers. After all, we all have a right to know!
  2. Companies should set clear public goals to measure success in eliminating chemicals of high concern and reducing retailers' chemical footprint. And it's super important for companies to publicly report on how they're meeting those goals!
  3. And finally, we need companies to stop playing the toxic whack-a-mole game! Companies should develop a way to evaluate the hazards of alternatives to ensure companies don't move from one problematic chemical to another. If they move from a chemical that may cause cancer, to a chemical linked to infertility, that's not going to do anyone any good!

BH: And finally, why focus on retailers to make these changes instead of manufacturers or governments?

MS: The Mind the Store campaign focuses on retailers because they are an important strategic intervention point. If a company like Walmart asks their suppliers to "jump", often times they'll ask "how high?"... they have massive amounts of influence over their suppliers and global supply chains. We are working to leverage that market power, not to mention the influence that consumers have over retailers, to drive change. No retailer wants to sell products that can expose their customers to hazardous chemicals. And no retailer wants to be on the six-o-clock news with a story about hazardous chemicals showing up in their food packaging or children's toys.

BH: That's a good point, retailers are very influential. We know the focus is on retailers, but how does Mind the Store also affect manufacturers, policies, and legislation?

MS: Our organization also fights for strong and sensible policies at the state and federal level, whether in Washington State or Washington DC. And we know that when we not only change the practices of big corporations, but also strategically align those policy commitments with policy reform in key states and federally, that's a perfect recipe for transformative change and success.

Folks can get involved on a personal level too by signing up for our e-list at SaferChemicals.org to get involved in our campaign!

Thanks so much for the interview and all that you do at Because Health! It's such a useful and informative website!

Heard of those sunscreen bans in Hawaii and Key West and thought "Well I'm never vacationing there so doesn't apply to me?" Well, turns out the chemicals in the ban that are bad for coral reefs may not be great for human health either. New FDA sunscreen guidelines could also change what active ingredients are found in sunscreen. Read more to find out how to get the safest sunscreen this summer. If you want a quick link to non-toxic sunscreens, here are our recommendations for best non-toxic adult and non-toxic baby sunscreens.

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