California has placed more than 900 chemicals on its list of carcinogens. There are a few different processes by which chemicals can be added to the list, but in general two committees of “technical experts” review the scientific literature and evidence surrounding a particular chemical and then determine whether they think it has the potential to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. Despite this seemingly scientific process, California often lists chemicals as carcinogens that other government agencies and scientific bodies consider perfectly safe.
As the American Cancer Society explains:
Scientists classify all of these cancer-related substances at least as probable carcinogens, meaning that they might cause cancer in some people. But not all of them are known carcinogens (known to cause cancer) by groups and experts outside of the state of California. This means that not every compound labeled as a possible cancer-causing substance has been proven to the worldwide scientific community to actually cause cancer.
Among the questionable choices of California’s regulators:
Caramel coloring—appearing in a wide array of food items including coffee, chocolate, baked goods, soft drinks, alcohol, and sauces, several classes of caramel coloring have been listed under Prop 65 as carcinogens. Yet caramel color is listed as “general recognized as safe” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and after more than 20 studies, the European Food Safety Authority determined that “Based on all available data, the Panel concluded that these caramel colours are neither genotoxic, nor carcinogenic.”
Acrylamide—this chemical is one of the primary reasons Proposition 65 labels appear in California coffee shops. The chemical forms naturally in a number of foods once they are cooked and is present in products such as breads, cereals, cookies, potato chips, etc. But the chemical has only been shown to be a carcinogen at extremely high doses—you’d have to eat 182 pounds of French fries a day to reach the level of proven cancer-causing exposure.
Even when the chemicals listed under Prop 65 are generally accepted as carcinogens, the labels themselves give no indication as to the actual risk of harm from exposure. Prop 65 requires that if a chemical causes “one excess case of cancer in 100,000 individuals exposed to the chemical over a 70-year lifetime,” there must be a warning label when that chemical is present. But since the warning label is the same for all products regardless of how much of that chemical is present, it’s impossible for consumers to know whether there is a real risk or whether exposure levels are too low to pose any risk.
No Impact on Public Health
It’s easy to see why, three decades after Proposition 65’s passage, California’s rate of many common cancers – including cervical, liver, melanoma, mesothelioma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, ovarian, stomach and testicular – are either no different from or higher than the rest of the United States. You’d expect that if Californians were suddenly informed about the public health risks of everyday products, there would be associated lifestyle changes and changes in product formulations that would dramatically lower cancer risks. However, research from Professor Michael Marlow of California Polytechnic State University shows that simply isn’t the case.