It’s jarring to see a health warning label on a household product, especially a label that tells you a product is “known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm” — which is what the California Proposition 65 warning says.
The label is on many items, from furniture to energy drinks, both within the state of California (where it’s mandated) and sometimes beyond state lines, too. Outside of California, you may see it via online retailers (here’s an Amazon example, a Drizly example and a Walmart example, for reference) or it can sometimes be found on a label within a product’s packaging.
If you haven’t seen this label before, you’ll surely notice it now. And if you’ve seen it before and wondered just how worried you need to be, here’s what you need to know:
What is the California Proposition 65 Warning Label?
According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, the official name for this proposition is the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 and it “protects the state’s drinking water sources from being contaminated with chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and requires businesses to inform Californians about exposures to such chemicals,” the website states.
Ellen Wells, an associate professor in the department of public health at Purdue University in Indiana, said the label was put in place in the 1980s when there was a large push for right-to-know laws that were focused on providing the public with information.
“There’s not anything quite like it on the national level, but California has had this since the 1980s,” Wells said. It’s a forward-thinking move, she said, that considered reproductive harm before much other legislation and has also caused some companies to change their formulation so they didn’t have to include this label. (Both Coke and Pepsi changed their recipe to avoid having to put this warning on their products.)
There’s a board of experts in California who review information about the toxicity of chemicals and determine which could pose a health risk. If a product contains a concerning chemical, it gets a label — though it doesn’t have to have a huge amount of the chemical in it, Wells said.
As mentioned above, items with the Proposition 65 label have a chemical that has been linked with cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm, Wells said. And while you may see this label outside of California sometimes, it is not mandated outside of the state — the same product intentionally sold outside of California does not need the label, according to Wells.
Is it safe to use products with this warning?
Most likely, yes. Just because you see a Proposition 65 warning doesn’t mean the product will harm you.
“The lowest level that would trigger a warning wouldn’t necessarily affect most people,” Wells said. “But if a person is especially susceptible to reproductive harms or birth defects or cancer, they might want to avoid that.”
In other words, you can use this label as a tool for making informed decisions about the products you have in your home based on your health history. For example, if you’re pregnant, you may want to be wary of a product that can cause birth defects. Additionally, if you’re battling cancer, an item with a cancer-causing chemical may make you understandably nervous.
“I would say you shouldn’t necessarily be worried, but you should think about how you’re planning to use the product and your own situation,” Wells noted.
Dr. Otis Brawley, the associate director of community outreach and engagement at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine, added he “would encourage people to not get overly concerned.”
Your personal risk level depends on the kind of item that has this label, he noted.
Certain products with this label — like alcohol and cigarettes — do increase your cancer risk significantly (and you’re likely well aware of this notion even without the label), but things like weightlifting benches with the warning probably don’t.
Know the major cancer risk factors — and focus on reducing that risk.
“First off, people should only care about that label if they don’t smoke and don’t drink alcohol, that’s the first thing,” Brawley said.
A smoker is 11 times more likely to develop cancer than a non-smoker, and 5% of all cancers in the U.S. are caused by alcohol, he continued. “Obesity is the second-leading cause of cancer in the United States, only outdone by tobacco,” he added. “Those are things that are raising your risk more than anything else.”
“I cannot over-stress the fact that if you start scaring people about bed frames and mattresses [with this label], things that are unlikely to cause cancer, you numb them when you start talking about tobacco smoke, you numb them when you start talking about obesity,” he said.
Additionally, Brawley said there are subtleties in carcinogenicity that get lost with this label. Some items that are known to cause cancer (like alcohol and cigarettes) have the label, while other chemicals that could potentially cause cancer ― but it’s less known ― get the same label.
If you are worried about products with this label, you can lessen the risk once the item is in your home — but that’s pretty unnecessary.
The unfortunate truth is many items have this label, and it’s not always possible to find an option (especially an affordable option) that is totally safe. If you do find yourself with an item in your home that has this label, there are things you can do to limit your exposure to the potentially harmful chemical.
Wells said you can let a product air out before you start using it. Put it in a room with open windows or let it side in the garage before bringing it inside.
“Some of the chemicals would evaporate into the air over time, so there would be less in the air,” she said. This is particularly true for furniture with harmful varnishes or paint, Wells added.
You could also limit your contact with the item if you are high-risk, but that probably isn’t necessary.
“I would say for most people it’s not necessarily a big concern unless you’re happen to be using a lot of the product, which would be unusual,” she said.
In general, try to to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals, but don’t go overboard.
“Overall, the system that the U.S. implements to regulate exposure to chemicals … could be described as reactionary versus proactive,” Wells said — which is an important thing to take into consideration.
“New chemicals are being created fairly frequently and our system hasn’t really caught up with determining the toxicity of all of them. For all of the chemicals we have evidence for toxicity for, there are probably a dozen we don’t have much information for at all,” Wells added.
But we have to live our lives, and it’s well known that many things in our day-to-day — from the UV light used during gel manicures to ultra-processed foods — do cause us harm.
“My advice is to learn what you can about it and make good choices to avoid potentially hazardous products when you can and otherwise try to reduce your exposure as much as you can,” Wells said.
It’s important to also manage your exposure to known and possible carcinogens, Brawley said, but understand that you can’t completely avoid every carcinogen. Brawley said you can refer to the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s list of carcinogens, which breaks them down by their level of carcinogenicity.
This way, you can arm yourself with information so you can make the best decision for you and your family.
“What I would try to do is set the warning labels aside and know what [the] major things that cause cancer in my life are and try to avoid the things that are highly likely to cause me to have cancer,” Brawley said.
“While the Prop 65 label isn’t something most people need to worry about with their daily lives, I would say the issue overall of chemicals in commerce and in use is still something that needs to be thought about at a national level [and] at a state level,” Wells added.
All in all, this label does not mean much for most people, but it is a good example of a state sharing health information with its citizens so they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families.