There are good reasons to worry about cancer and carcinogens. Toxic pollutants linked to cancer are often in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. So, in theory, it sounds like a worthwhile measure to require products that contain substances known to be carcinogens to carry warning labels.
But regulators in California have taken cancer warning labels to a whole new level. As a result, dietary supplements and other alternative remedies with an almost zero chance of causing cancer are being labeled as potentially carcinogenic. Here’s the unsettling story.
The regulatory law in California that governs these warning labels is known as Proposition 65 (Prop 65). In 1986, this law, officially called the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, went into effect, mandating that all products containing any of about 900 “toxic” substances carry a label announcing that one or more of their ingredients may cause cancer or reproductive harm.
Alleged “carcinogens” in miniscule amounts
The problem with this law starts with the fact that products are required to carry warning labels even if the alleged carcinogens and other substances they contain are at levels so tiny, their threat to your health is virtually nonexistent.1
On top of that, another basic issue with these warning labels is that companies are not required to list exactly which of their ingredients are the reason they are labeled as possibly harmful. So, if you see a warning label, you’re often not even aware of which ingredient you’re being warned about.
And there are other objections: The amount of “toxin” in a product that the California regulation deems cancer-causing goes way, way beyond the limits that the Federal government – and most important, the research – has identified as a danger to health.
Lead contamination in the real world
Consider lead, for instance. Of course, we can all agree that we should not consume lead. No reasonable person wants lead in their food or supplements.
But all natural products are bound to contain at least very tiny amounts of lead and other heavy metals. You can’t grow a plant in soil and harvest it without the plant absorbing very small amounts of metals from the ground.
For instance, if a dietary supplement is made from natural ingredients it is very difficult – if not impossible – to eliminate all traces of heavy metals. Ironically, artificial ingredients, which are created in a lab, are easier to purify to the rigid – and unrealistic – levels required by Prop 65.
And when it comes to lead, Prop 65 requires a scary warning label about the dangers of lead if a supplement contains more than half a microgram. The federal lead limit is 12.5 microgram – 25 times more than what California says needs a warning. This is not to say the Feds are always right, but the disparity is so large, someone is way off, and in this case it’s the Californians.
A microgram is a millionth of a gram, and there are about 28 grams in an ounce. A half microgram is an unimaginably small amount.
To put this in perspective, in regard to carcinogens, the California regulators define the “no significant risk level” as being the amount that results in what they claim is one extra case of cancer in 100,000 people exposed to the chemical over a “70-year lifetime.”2
In other words, if you consumed a supplement or other product with an ingredient at a tiny level that could be shown to be linked to only one case of cancer in 100,000 people over the course of 70 years, the product’s label has to warn you about the danger.
Sound absurd enough?
Why not label fresh vegetables “toxic” then?
California’s regulations are really strange when you consider the lead levels in fresh, whole foods. For instance, a four-ounce serving of cooked spinach has 14 times as much lead as the “safe” level defined by Prop 65 – as does a sweet potato. And an avocado has nine times as much.3
So, should we put labels on fresh foods?
Of course not. The lead in these foods is at tolerable levels. Nobody seriously claims that an avocado is connected to any serious risk of birth defects when pregnant women eat them. Neither are sweet potatoes or other fruits and vegetables.
Someone once said that humankind was doomed the day we learned to extract metals from the ground and smelt them about 5,500 years ago. Prior to that, these substances did not exist in our foods – or in our blood — and that was a good thing.
250 years into the industrial revolution, all of us have large amounts of lead and many other toxic metals in our bodies. It’s deplorable. But the situation will not be remedied in any significant way by these foolish regulations.
Probably more people will die of the stress of seeing a cancer label on everything they eat than will die of the actual heavy metals in the foods or pills.
Lack of research
Another aspect that confirms the uselessness of much of California’s mandated labeling is the fact that even if a particular toxin did result in one case of cancer in 100,000 people over the course of seven decades, how would we even reliably be sure about that risk?
I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen any 70-year controlled studies being conducted in my search through the published literature that analyzes cancer risks. Carrying out that sort of study on humans would, of course, be unethical even if a researcher thought he or she would still be alive at the end of the investigation to analyze the results. And each of us is subjected to so many toxins and other disease-linked variables in our lifetime that sorting out the influence of one toxin would be impossible.
Prop 65 and painkillers
Another illustration of the Prop 65 regulations’ controversy now centers on whether or not to require cancer warning labels on acetaminophen, the painkiller ingredient in Excedrin, Tylenol, Robitussin, Theraflu and many other products. (Acetaminophen is also known as paracetamol.)
Many experts point out that the potential evidence linking products containing acetaminophen to cancer is weak and unconvincing. These medications have been sold over-the-counter (no prescription needed) since the 1950s. Among the more than 180 studies of acetaminophen that have analyzed its possible association with cancer, some claim to find a weak connection while others find no connection.
And even California’s regulators admit that it’s hard to separate acetaminophen’s effects on health from other lifestyle factors like smoking, obesity and lack of exercise.
Hearings in California about acetaminophen are supposed to occur this spring. But so far officials with the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) have said that requiring acetaminophen products to be labeled as containing carcinogens would be illegal under Federal laws and also be “false and misleading.”4
Dr. Janet Woodcock, who directs the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, says that a warning label on acetaminophen medications “would misbrand these products.”5
In my opinion, the entire Prop 65 labeling program is misbranding products left and right. Its extremism has rendered these labels useless and needlessly alarming. And, unfortunately, if California insists on these labels, companies that sell their products nationally will slap these labels on their packages nationwide – it’s just too costly and complicated to label items individually for each state.
This means people all over the country will be frightened for no reason.
My advice is that most of these labels can be safely ignored. Or, if you’re concerned, do some research and find out why a particular product has a Prop 65 warning label. In many cases, you’ll learn that the alleged risk is questionable and probably negligible.