When California voters approved Proposition 65 in 1986, they overwhelmingly indicated they wanted a “right to know” when they may be exposed to potentially harmful chemicals. For the past quarter century, businesses operating in California have been required to inform consumers when they may be exposed to chemicals “known to the state of California” to cause cancer or reproductive harm. However, despite the ubiquity of Proposition 65 labels and signs, recent research shows most citizens haven’t heard of the law.

To increase consumer awareness, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) launched a new consumer-focused Proposition 65 website and issued new rules overhauling the law’s required warning labels. Unfortunately, if OEHHA achieves its goal and consumers begin reading the problematic information pushed out by the agency, consumers may end up being less informed about their health risks, not more.

Consider the information OEHHA provides about dental procedures.

A large portion of Americans already avoid going to the dentist: The Colgate Oral and Dental Health Resource Center estimates 30 to 40 million Americans forgo trips to the dentist due to fear, compromising their oral health. For Californians looking for a reason to skip their semi-annual checkup, OEHHA’s Proposition 65 website is happy to oblige.

On the website’s page about the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), OEHHA advises consumers to reduce their exposure to dental products that contain BPA and suggests that “if your dentist recommends sealants or fillings, ask about BPA-free options.” This advice directly contradicts research published by the American Dental Association’s Science Institute. In a recent article, “BPA in dental sealants is ‘safe,'” the Science Institute concludes there is negligible exposure to BPA from dental sealants, and that these sealants are an important tool to protect our teeth from cavities.

Strangely, though dentists are certainly the experts when it comes to our teeth, OEHHA doesn’t even include a link to the ADA’s statement on BPA in dental sealants in its online “resources” section for consumers hoping to learn more. Similarly, OEHHA informs consumers about exposure to mercury in dental amalgam fillings and nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”), but doesn’t tell consumers why dentists use these tools and the benefits of choosing dental amalgam fillings or laughing gas over alternatives.

This lack of complete information about the chemicals and products listed on OEHHA’s website is incredibly problematic for consumers.

OEHHA insists that it’s not in the business of deciding whether a particular product is “safe” or “unsafe.” However, as soon as the agency offers advice on how to reduce exposure to a particular chemical and requires scary pictogram “hazard” signs on individual products, it’s safe to assume that consumers will regard those products as dangerous—even if scientific evidence supports their safe use.

While it’s not clear whether Proposition 65 gives OEHHA the legal authority to create this new Proposition 65 website and to force manufacturers to send their customers to that website for agency-directed (and misleading) information about their products, the agency could make some simple and immediate improvements. Simply posting a more complete list of resources—including sources that explain the actual consumer health risk from using a particular product—is an excellent start.  Being clear that the information offered has nothing to do with safety, and that safe products can and do bear Proposition 65 “warnings,” would also be helpful.  And encouraging consumers with questions about product safety to start with the actual manufacturer would be helpful, too.

Of course, a real understanding of product safety must be founded on risk, and this is a key shortcoming of Proposition 65 itself.  “Warning” consumers about the hazard characteristics of chemicals in consumer products, regardless of whether risk is presented or how small that risk is, is not helpful.  Ultimately, only a risk-based system, and risk-based communications, will deliver meaningful value.  In the meantime, OEHHA should reexamine how it builds out its website and seek real feedback from users on how they understand the information on the site.

Karyn Schmidt is a senior director of regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council.