Understanding Prop 65 labels
In 1986 – more than 30 years ago – due to concern over exposure to toxic chemicals, California voters passed a citizen initiative, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, or, as it’s now universally known, Proposition 65. This citizen-based initiative, which is now the law in California, requires the State of California to publish two lists of chemicals – one list of chemicals that have been shown to have a risk of causing cancer in animals or humans, and a second list of chemicals that have been shown to have a risk of causing birth defects or other reproductive harm in animals or humans.
Even if a chemical has not been shown to cause these kinds of harm in humans, if the harm has been shown in animal testing, then the State of California is required to put the chemical on the appropriate Proposition 65 list. The two lists, which are updated once a year, have grown to nearly 900 chemicals since they were first published in 1987.
Proposition 65 also requires any company doing business in California to notify California consumers about the presence of a Proposition 65-listed chemical in any product the company is offering for sale in California. If a product sold in California could expose a California resident to the specified minimum amount of one of these 900 chemicals, then the product must include a warning notice. Proposition 65 does not ban the sale of a product that contains a listed chemical; it simply requires that the product have a “clear and reasonable” warning notice on it.
What kinds of chemicals are on the Proposition 65 lists?
The two Proposition 65 lists encompass a wide range of both naturally-occurring and man-made chemicals. Listed chemicals include ingredients found in pesticides, insecticides, and construction materials, as well as ingredients in common household products including foods, drugs, and alcoholic beverages.
Proposition 65 applies to all consumer goods sold in California, including food, although naturally-occurring chemicals that are in food are not counted for purposes of determining if a warning notice is required. Some chemicals on the two Proposition 65 lists, such as lead, cadmium, and arsenic, are naturally found in the environment, literally all over the world. Therefore, some products that naturally contain these chemicals can be required to carry a Proposition 65 warning notice, although, as noted above, not in the case of foods.
At one time, the state of California even required Proposition 65 labels on coffee products.
As an example of the problems that can occur with the regulation, the state of California even required Proposition 65 labels on coffee products, as shown in the photo above. The coffee ruling was triggered by the fact that trace amounts of acrylamide, a known carcinogen, can form when coffee beans are roasted. Hence the Proposition 65 label requirement was technically correct under the law. However, manufacturers challenged the ruling, citing overwhelming scientific evidence that consumption of coffee poses no increased risk of cancer; on the contrary, drinking coffee may lower the risk of several types of cancer. After legal challenges, the state of California recently exempted the chemicals in coffee from the Prop 65 warning requirement.
Are all states affected by Proposition 65?
Proposition 65 only applies in California. Manufacturers, distributors, and retailers who sell consumer goods in California are subject to Proposition 65’s warning notice requirement, whether or not the company is located in California. However, it is certainly possible that a product originally intended for sale in California that has a Proposition 65 warning notice on it could find its way to another state and be offered for sale there, even though Proposition 65 doesn’t apply in that state.
Does Proposition 65 apply to dietary supplements?
Since 2013, as a result of litigation to determine their status, dietary supplements are categorized in California as foods for purposes of Proposition 65. If a dietary supplement contains a chemical on a Proposition 65 list, and the chemical is present in an amount above its Proposition 65 threshold – and the chemical is not naturally occurring in an ingredient in the dietary supplement – then a warning notice must be on the product to inform California consumers the chemical is present.
There are many finer points concerning botanicals that are used in dietary supplements. Many plants are capable of accumulating heavy metals from the soils in which they grow., These heavy metals may be naturally occurring or due to human influence. It is very difficult to determine how much of a heavy metal naturally accumulates in a plant, as it depends on many complex factors.
Supplement manufacturers often choose to include the Proposition 65 warning on botanical-containing products that may exceed allowed levels simply to protect themselves legally.
Legally, the burden of proving any heavy metals found in a botanical ingredient are naturally occurring is placed on the manufacturer. Because the amount of heavy metals found in botanical products may vary by batch, season, and region from which the botanical is obtained, supplement manufacturers often choose to include the Proposition 65 warning on botanical-containing products that may exceed allowed levels simply to protect themselves legally.
Are products with a proposition 65 warning notice unsafe?
When a manufacturer includes a Proposition 65 warning notice on a product, it does not mean the product is unsafe. Rather, the notice is intended to inform California consumers of the presence of a listed chemical so the consumer can make an informed decision when purchasing the product.
For many food and dietary supplement ingredients, the Proposition 65 level is well below the naturally occurring levels in the nation’s food supply, which have been assessed by the FDA’s Total Diet Study. Thus, even though a nutritional supplement may contain a Prop 65 warning, it often contains significantly less of these potentially toxic substances per serving than many food items in North America.
Additionally, in some ingredients found in nutritional supplements such as activated charcoal, shown in the photo below, the potentially harmful substances such as lead are very tightly bound. Activated charcoal is a very effective binder of lead and other substances – so much so that it is used for treatment of water and other substances that may contain this contaminant. When taken orally as a supplement, activated charcoal does not release these toxins into the human body, but rather it continues to bind other toxic substances as it moves through the digestive tract, helping to eliminate them from the body.
Activated charcoal, commonly used to treat medication overdoses and support detoxification, inherently contains toxic heavy metals although they are tightly bound.
How concerned should I be about a Proposition 65 warning notice?
A bit of background information is needed to understand what Proposition 65 warning notices really mean. It’s important to understand that a Proposition 65 warning notice does not mean a product is dangerous or harmful. The threshold exposure limits that the State of California has set for many chemicals on the two Proposition 65 lists are far below the “safe” limits set by other regulatory agencies, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, various European health agencies, and the World Health Organization.
For example, for lead, in children under the age of six, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has established the “provisional total tolerable intake level” at six micrograms of lead per day. Consuming less than this amount of lead daily is an amount the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deems to be safe for children in this age group. By contrast, Proposition 65 requires a warning notice on any product that provides 0.5 micrograms of lead daily – an amount 12 times lower than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “provisional total tolerable intake level” for daily lead consumption in a six-year-old.
For pregnant women, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “provisional total tolerable intake level” for lead is 25 micrograms daily, which is 50 times greater than the amount requiring a Proposition 65 warning notice.
For pregnant women, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “provisional total tolerable intake level” for lead is 25 micrograms daily, which is 50 times greater than the amount requiring a Proposition 65 warning notice. Finally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “provisional total tolerable intake level” for non-pregnant adults is set at 75 micrograms of lead daily, which is 150 times greater than the amount requiring a Proposition 65 warning notice in the State of California.
How does Proposition 65 determine the threshold levels for which a warning notice is required?
Proposition 65 establishes two criteria to define the level of exposure risk. One criterion applies to cancer risk and the other criterion applies to the risk for birth defects or other reproductive harm:
- The maximum daily exposure threshold for a cancer-risk chemical is determined using the “no significant risk level.” The “no significant risk level” is defined as the maximum daily level of exposure that would result in not more than one additional case of cancer in 100,000 individuals exposed to that specific chemical every day for 70 years. In other words, a person who was exposed for 70 years to the maximum daily limit of the chemical at the “no significant risk level” would have no more than a one-in-100,000 chance of developing cancer as a result of that 70-year exposure.
- The maximum daily exposure threshold for a birth defect-risk chemical is determined using the “no observable effect level.” The “no observable effect level” is defined as the maximum daily level of exposure that has been shown to not cause any birth defects or reproductive harm in laboratory animals or humans. In addition, as a margin of safety, the “no observable effect level” is divided by 1,000 to establish the threshold for requiring a Proposition 65 warning notice for that chemical.
How is California’s Proposition 65 enforced?
Ultimately, the California Attorney General is responsible for enforcing Proposition 65. In addition, the 50+ district attorneys in the State of California can also enforce Proposition 65. However, any private citizen who states that he or she is “acting in the public interest” can file a lawsuit against a company alleged to be violating Proposition 65 — this is the part of Proposition 65 commonly referred to as its “bounty hunter” provision.
Although Proposition 65 lawsuits have been filed by the California Attorney General and by California’s district attorneys, because the penalties for not including a Proposition 65 warning notice on a product are as high as $2,500 per violation per day, it is easy to understand why consumer advocacy groups, private citizens, and private plaintiff’s law firms have filed the vast majority of Proposition 65 lawsuits. In fact, most lawsuits brought under Proposition 65 are filed by a very small number of consumer groups and law firms – some of these law firms do no other legal work but represent the plaintiffs who sue companies for allegedly violating Proposition 65.
Is Proposition 65 meeting its goal of reducing the exposure of California residents to toxic chemicals?
In the 30 years since it became law, Proposition 65 has provided California residents with information that has helped them limit their exposure to toxic chemicals. For example, more women are aware of the dangers associated with alcohol consumption during pregnancy. And Proposition 65 has prompted the removal of known carcinogens, such as trichloroethylene and methyl chloride, from a number of consumer products.
The near-universal posting of Proposition 65 warning notices has led to a general sense of apathy among California residents, which has significantly blunted Proposition 65’s effectiveness.
Proposition 65 warning notices are very nearly ubiquitous in California. They can be seen in almost every supermarket, restaurant, and convenience store. Consumer products such as electrical wiring, jewelry, and flashlights are just as likely to carry a Proposition 65 warning notice as are insecticides and paint strippers. Many experts believe this warning is present at unnecessarily low exposure thresholds to warrant concern. Thus, the near-universal posting of Proposition 65 warning notices has led to a general sense of apathy among California residents, which has significantly blunted Proposition 65’s effectiveness.
Additionally, Proposition 65 has come at great cost to companies that do business in California with their customers. The cost and expense involved in product testing and reformulation, providing warning notices, and otherwise complying with Proposition 65 is inevitably passed on to consumers.
Proposition 65 requires businesses to warn consumers of any possible exposure to one of the chemicals on the list, regardless of amount or actual risk of exposure. Even manufacturers based outside of California are subject to Proposition 65’s label requirements if they sell their products in the state. As discussed above, it’s important to understand that a Proposition 65 warning notice does not mean a product is dangerous or harmful. We hope this discussion is helpful in understanding the rationale as well as the limitations of Proposition 65 labels.Click here to see References
 Kleckerová A, Dočekalová H. Dandelion plants as a biomonitor of urban area contamination by heavy metals. Int J Enviro Res. 2014 Jan 1;8(1):157-64.
 Raskin I, Kumar PN, Dushenkov S, Salt DE. Bioconcentration of heavy metals by plants. Cur Opin Biotechnol. 1994 Jun 1;5(3):285-90.
 Food and Drug Administration. Analytical Results of the Total Diet Study [Internet]. Silver Spring (MD): FDA; 2019 [cited 6 Nov 2019]. Available from: https://www.fda.gov/food/total-diet-study/analytical-results-total-diet-study