Warnings Everywhere

If you live in California, or if you’ve bought goods manufactured in California, you’ve probably seen a Prop 65 warning sign or label. They are everywhere in our lovely state: on jewelry, electronics, in gas stations, apartment buildings, and even sometimes on food packaging. But what do they really mean, and should you be worried?


WARNING: This product may contain a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

So, Just What is Prop 65?

In 1986 Proposition 65 was passed in California to prevent businesses from dumping harmful chemicals into waterways. I, for one, am glad I live in a place where I don’t have to worry about toxic drinking water.

However, Prop 65 has evolved over the years. It now requires businesses to notify consumers about “significant amounts of chemicals in the products they purchase, in their homes or workplaces, or that are released into the environment.” [Source: OEHHA]  Any chemical that California has decided might be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) or cause problems with reproductive health is included in this legislation. This sounds good on the surface. Who wouldn’t want to know what substances they’re being exposed to? Unfortunately, there are many problems with this system.

Missing Information

Prop 65 warning labels don’t tell you everything you need to know:

  1. They don’t tell you what kind of chemical you may be exposed to. There are currently over 800 chemicals on the Prop 65 list, which have very different effects and levels of toxicity.
  2. They don’t tell you the concentrations of chemicals involved. Oftentimes, California requires warnings even when the levels are far below what is considered safe and acceptable by federal legislation.
  3. They don’t tell you how you may be exposed. Different chemicals present different hazards – touch, inhalation, ingestion, etc.

These warning labels have two unintended effects:

  1. Because they are so common, they can create apathy. A lot of us have learned to simply ignore them.
  2. They can cause alarm when there is really little to no risk present. It’s a little shocking to see that something in your bag of candy may cause reproductive harm.

Lead, as an Example

Of the over 800 chemicals included in Prop 65, lead is probably the most familiar to us.

Lead is a heavy metal that causes well-established health issues, especially in children under the age of 6. Lead isn’t needed by the human body, and we don’t have a mechanism to rid our bodies of lead, so it can accumulate to toxic levels. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as a “probable carcinogenic.” [Source ACS]

Unfortunately, we released huge quantities of lead into our environment in the 20th century. Leaded gasoline, paints, and manufacturing processes were the primary culprits. We now have lead in our air, water, and soil.

The awesomely good news is that we decreased the amount of lead in our air by 99% between 1980 and 2015 [Source: US EPA]. Unfortunately, removing it from soil isn’t going to happen so quickly. Because lead is in our soil, it’s not possible to grow 100% lead-free plants. Some amount of lead is absorbed by growing plants and occasionally can be found in very low concentrations in some fruits and vegetables. The presence of even barely detectable levels of lead in food, well below FDA guidelines, warrants a Prop 65 label in California.

Lead in Jewelry

Lead makes many manufacturing processes easier and cheaper. This includes the mass production of jewelry components. In the United States, this practice has largely fallen out of use, but jewelry components imported from overseas can contain lead. For those of us crafting jewelry by hand, lead is generally not needed, so most of us don’t use it. Jewelers have been using lead-free solder for decades.

Proposition 65 requires that “manufacturers and importers of lead-containing jewelry must warn consumers if they will be exposed to lead in jewelry in an amount that exceeds the safe harbor level of 0.5 micrograms per day.” [Source: OEHHA] When you think about it, this is a fairly useless definition. The amount of exposure one would receive from a piece of jewelry would depend not only on the amount of lead present, but also what the person was doing with the jewelry: Are they wearing it for a few hours? Are they wearing it all day? Are they sucking on it? (As children often do.) As you can see, “0.5 micrograms per day” isn’t the most helpful guideline. Setting a limit in terms of the concentration of lead in a piece of jewelry would be much more straightforward.

So which jewelry items really require a Prop 65 warning label? To protect a California jewelry business from lawsuits, the safest thing to do is to put a warning label on everything. Unfortunately, this does nothing to further the goal of protecting consumers from harmful substances.

In addition to Proposition 65, California has more specific regulations regarding lead and cadmium in jewelry; I’ll talk about those laws in a future blog post.

Enforcement through Civil Litigation

So, why are these warning labels on so many things we use every day? Simple: businesses put these labels on their products to avoid expensive and often frivolous civil lawsuits.

So, What Should We Do?

If you see a Prop 65 warning, and you feel concerned, contact the manufacturer or management for more information. Ask them about the types of chemicals involved, the concentration, and how you might be exposed. Most businesses are more than happy to tell you everything you need to know to feel safe.

If you’d like to see California change their policies, contact your representatives. Find your legislator on the California State Legislation Directory. Let them know about your concerns regarding these laws.