They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. So what are we to make of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s (OEHHA) doubling down on Prop 65, the California chemical labeling law that is as ubiquitous as it is meaningless?
Recently, OEHHA Acting Director Lauren Zeise claimed in a Fox and Hounds commentary that “This landmark law has provided Californians with significant health benefits.” But where’s the proof? California Polytechnic State University professor Michael Marlow found no evidence that Prop 65 has reduced cancer rates among Californians, stating “there isn’t a single empirical study that demonstrates any public-health benefits,”
Prop 65 has been around for three decades. And with zero studies showing any benefit, you could forgive Californians for wondering why their public health officials continue to pretend otherwise.
But rather than revisiting the law’s utility, OEHHA has proposed changes to Prop 65 that don’t make meaningful reform. OEHHA wants to make the label even more startling to consumers by including a warning symbol. This may get attention and raise blood pressure, but it doesn’t communicate actual risk. OEHHA would also require warnings to list a specific chemical, but how many consumers know what diethylhexyl phthalate is?
The labels will still lack meaningful information for consumers because they don’t put risk into context. Take the chemical acrylamide for example. It’s on the Prop 65 list, and it’s found potato chips, French fries, and coffee. But you’d have to eat 182 pounds of French fries every day to consume cancer-causing levels of acrylamide. A warning label for acrylamide on a box of fries or a bag of chips doesn’t tell consumers anything.
The problem is that the labels don’t distinguish low from high risks—and it’s desensitizing people to the real ones. If the acrylamide warning is so overblown, why should Californians take labels for the other 860 chemicals seriously, especially when they appear on parking garages and Christmas tree lights? Such sloppy science merely creates a “boy who cried wolf” dynamic.
Not only that, but OEHHA has ignored good science in favor of being on the side of scaremongering. Last year, OEHHA listed Bisphenol A under Prop 65 as a reproductive toxicant. However, no less than the Food and Drug Administration wrote OEHHA taking issue with this classification, writing that research findings “do not support BPA as a reproductive toxicant.”
The contents of chemical labels need to be in context for consumers. If people know the risks, they can make informed choices. But neither the proposed labels, nor the new OEHHA Prop 65 website, provide information about risk levels.
Second, a massive predatory industry has developed among lawyers and environmentalists who shakedown businesses that run afoul of Prop 65’s regulations. Last year alone, businesses paid $26.2 million in Prop 65 settlements, with 68% going to pay attorneys’ fees.
OEHHA’s proposed Prop 65 changes are weak and fail to fix the problems. Nonetheless, OEHHA defended them with a survey which “showed 77% found the new warnings more helpful than the existing warnings.” However, consulting public opinion on scientific nuance is a dangerous game. After all, another recent studyfound that 80 percent of consumers want to label food products containing DNA. (All food has DNA.)
OEHHA could propose smarter reforms. By deferring to authoritative bodies—like the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—on which chemicals are safe, and not just carcinogenic, OEHHA would be following the best available science. By raising the burden of proof to significant exposure to chemicals before a business can be liable for failing to warn a customer, OEHHA would diminish the number of bounty hunter lawyers and unclog the court system by following common sense.
Everyone make mistakes, especially government agencies. But when it comes to questions of health and accuracy, there isn’t time for pride. OEHHA needs to admit its mistakes, and start keeping Californians safe with common sense and the best available science.