12369504061?profile=RESIZE_710xWhat is Prop 65? In the state of California, Prop 65 warning labels on products inform consumers that it is known to cause cancer or reproductive harm in humans or laboratory animals. Products include apparel, textiles, jewelry, accessories, home products, food, buildings, and more. The label is mandated in California but also crosses state lines in e-commerce sites such as Amazon. The Prop 65 warning label has become so ubiquitous that it’s easy for consumers to become blasé about the dire omens, but should we still be concerned?

Why and When Did Prop 65 Start? Officially known as the “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986,” Prop 65 was a ballot initiative in November 1986 that was voted into state law in reaction to drinking water sources being contaminated with chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. When the law went into effect, about 235 chemicals were on the list but that number is now over 900 and growing, although the label did not specifically identify the chemical in the item, provide information on how a person might be exposed to the chemical, or how they could reduce or eliminate their exposure.

Prop 65 does not ban or restrict the sale of chemicals on the list but rather is intended to help Californians make informed decisions about their exposure. These chemicals can be viewed HERE and extend far beyond drinking water, including additives or ingredients found in pesticides, common household products, food, drugs, dyes, and solvents.

Who Decides? The proposition also requires the state to maintain and update the list of chemicals as identified by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The list of chemicals is updated annually by several authoritative bodies that set standards for safe consumption of chemicals, including the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Food and Drug Administration. Prop 65 goes above and beyond federal standards so that even if a product doesn’t contain a huge amount of a concerning chemical, it still gets a label.

New Prop 65 Labels New Prop 65 warnings went into effect in 2018 and say the product can “expose you to” a chemical rather than “contain a chemical,” and also specifies what the chemical is, which provides the public with more meaningful and useful information. For example, the old Prop 65 label stated, “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer,” whereas the new Prop 65 label contains a yellow triangle with an exclamation point and might say: 

️WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including arsenic, which is known to the State of California to cause cancer. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov." Companies can be liable for fines for failure to comply; in 2018 there were 829 settlements totaling over $35 million.

Should We Avoid Products With Prop 65 Labels? “Safe harbor levels,” which include No Significant Risk Levels and Maximum Allowable Dose Levels, have been established for many chemicals listed under Prop 65 according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Ellen Wells, a Public Health professor at Purdue University, points out that the label was a result of forward thinking in the 1980s, when there was a large push for right-to-know laws that focused on giving the public information. Coke and Pepsi even changed their recipe to avoid having to put the warning label on their products due to the potential carcinogen found in the original caramel food coloring. But Wells maintains that just because you see a Prop 65 warning label doesn’t mean the product will automatically harm you. “The lowest level that would trigger a warning wouldn’t necessarily affect most people. But if a person is especially susceptible to reproductive harms or birth defects or cancer, they might want to avoid that.” This likely includes children, women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, people who are immunosuppressed, the elderly, those battling cancer, and others.

Dr. Otis Brawley, the associate director of community outreach and engagement at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine, notes that products with the label such as alcohol and cigarettes increase cancer risk significantly. Leafscore.com points out that Prop 65 has helped raise awareness of the dangers of alcohol in pregnancy, trichloroethylene in correction fluids, and toluene in nail care products. Air quality has also improved since the adoption of Prop 65, with significant reductions in emissions of ethylene oxide, hexavalent chromium, and chloroform. Newer formulation of paint strippers are now mostly free from the carcinogen methylene chloride, and the lead content of ceramic tableware and foil wine caps is now significantly reduced or non-existent, thanks to Prop 65.

A New York Times article from 2020 conceded that there are so many items in the world that DON’T have a warning label but are full of toxins, and “you may be in less danger with a clearly labeled item than you would be with unlabeled products.” This article also said “The Prop 65 label is like a noisy alarm that rings equally loudly about smaller amounts of low-risk substances and huge amounts of potentially harmful chemicals. The labels don’t say how much of the chemical is present, or how much it would really take to make a person sick.” There’s also the argument that we have to live our lives and it isn’t realistic to have warning labels on every single dangerous activity or product, from driving on the freeway to eating potato chips due to acrylamide. But others take the view that any poison or toxin is too much, no matter how small, and we have every right to know what we are being exposed to and should get to decide what risks we want to take.

Weighing the Risks and Benefits Ironically, many energy saving appliances sold in California, including refrigerators, stoves, and ranges as well as household items such as hairdryers, toasters, and Christmas lights, carry the label because they contain lead in the PVC insulation around their electrical wiring and cords to make them more flexible so they don’t crack. Lead also acts as a fire retardant. If appliances are otherwise eco-friendly and you aren’t handling the wiring often, they are probably not of concern; however, if the cords are disintegrating, you should replace them, and if you are handling the cords regularly, be sure to wash your hands well afterwards. Remember, if a product isn’t sold in California, it isn’t required to carry the Prop 65 label and is not necessarily free of lead or any other toxin.

If you have a choice of an item with the Prop 65 label and a similar item without, the choice is easy, especially if you are in a vulnerable category. But even for those of us who are young, hale, and hardy, it's still never a bad idea to arm ourselves with all the facts and weigh the risks before making logical and informed decisions to protect the long-term health of ourselves, our families, and our planet. Please visit this list of products and places that use the Prop 65 label.

For Resources and Further Reading:







Photo by Maëva Vigier on Unsplash



You need to be a member of SCOCO Network to add comments!

Join SCOCO Network

Email me when people reply –


  • Thanks for answering my question Allison. Prop 65 is alive and well, if a little tainted by led insulation.
    • Nice to hear, Jim! I learn so much from researching these articles!
  • This is definitely food for thought. I have avoided purchasing items with that label. Seems like more needs to be done and companies need to seek out better alternatives.
    • Thanks, for your feedback, Sarah. I totally agree!
  • Great article, Alison. I totally agree that when I see that label on buildings or elsewhere, I just ignore it. I used to work in SF in a building that had the Prop 65 warning label. Should I not enter my place of work? There really wasn't a choice. Seems the better option is to be more like Europe and work on banning more of these hazardous chemicals (ie: the recent Red Dye ban that CA passed.) That is more impactful.
    • Laura, thank you! Yes, it seems we often have no choice. Banning harmful chemicals in the first place would help!
This reply was deleted.