Banner Busters: Are Prop 65 cancer warnings effective?
From coffee shops to check-out line at grocery stores and clothing stores, many of us have encountered the rather unsettling warning that chemicals used at that place of business are known to the state of California to cause cancer.
These warnings are a result of Proposition 65, originally passed in 1986 by California voters. The law requires that the state publishes a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm, and it requires businesses with at least 10 employees to provide warnings when they cause significant exposure to any of the chemicals on the list.
“This list currently includes more than 900 chemicals,” according to CA.gov. “Proposition 65 does not ban or restrict the sale of chemicals on the list. The warnings are intended to help Californians make informed decisions about their exposures to these chemicals from the products they use and the places they go.”
However, is there actual reason for concern when consumers spot one of these warnings?
Dr. Melissa Antonio, associate professor of biology, views the warnings as more of a way to raise awareness rather than raise concern.
“Concerns should be validated but, sadly, the reality of the matter is that exposure to harmful chemicals and exogenous agents in our daily lives is inevitable,” Antonio said. “It is a matter of making the right choices to reduce our exposure as much as possible to alleviate any concerns.”
Perhaps more important is the question of whether or not these warnings are effective in helping Californians, or if they simply cause unnecessary concern. Dr. Chase Porter, assistant professor of political science, said that, in theory, these warnings aim to prioritize and ensure public safety and distribute crucial information.
“Those businesses are also required to warn customers of exposure to the substances, hence the signs that we see all over the place,” Porter said. “Theoretically, consumers could then choose to avoid those businesses so that they could avoid exposure. Practically, I doubt the warnings have any effect on consumer behavior.”
Porter said regulatory burdens on businesses and information overload on consumers can hinder the benefits of health warnings such as these. Ultimately, the business costs of compliance — or the up to $2,500 fee per day for violating the law and the subsequent litigation fees — can harm businesses economically, which can be passed onto consumers.
The other issue with the effectiveness of these signs lies in consumer indifference. For many of us as consumers in California, these health warnings no longer pack the same punch that they perhaps once did.
“The Proposition 65 warnings illustrate a problem with general health warnings: The public tends to ignore them when there are too many of them that aren’t serious enough,” Porter said. “It’s the classic ‘boy who cries wolf’ problem. There are between 900 and 1,000 chemicals on the current Proposition 65 list. This essentially means that every business you go to has a warning sign. The ubiquity of the signs means they get ignored.”
While consumers should be aware of potential hazards, Porter credits the reason for indifference to the nuance between the idea that exposure to these substances can cause health problems and the idea that a substance will cause health issues. While medical studies have indicated reason for potential detrimental effects regarding Proposition 65 substances, consumers will largely remain unconcerned, especially when they seem so pervasive that avoiding the warnings — and the chemicals — is virtually impossible.
“A lot of people will spend their entire lives going into places with Proposition 65 warnings and having no problems with cancer or birth defects,” Porter said. “So there’s a real tendency to see the warnings as background noise that do not communicate useful substance.”
However, Antonio encourages people to benefit from the health warnings by using them as a launching point to better educate themselves about carcinogens.
“Citizens should approach these warnings with caution and consideration,” Antonio said. “We are all so busy in our day-to-day activities that we often overlook these warning labels. But it is imperative to be more aware and make better choices for the well-being of our bodies, as well as the well-being of our future generations.”