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