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Here are things California says may give you cancer but probably won’t




Your coffee now comes with a cancer warning per Prop 65. But do the scary cautionary labels hold up to scientific scrutiny?
Your coffee now comes with a cancer warning per Prop 65. But do the scary cautionary labels hold up to scientific scrutiny?
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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Spend enough time in California and you’re bound to see countless signs about the presence of chemicals. The signs include the unnerving text:

CAUSE CANCER AND BIRTH DEFECTS AND OTHER REPRODUCTIVE HARM.

We have Proposition 65 to thank for the innumerable prophecies of doom.

Even caffeine addicts received a jolt recently when a Los Angeles judge ruled that their coffee would come with a cancer warning. Coffee contains small amounts of acrylamide and therefore warrants a label per Prop 65.

In 1986, California passed Prop 65 to help protect consumer drinking water. An effort that makes a tremendous about of sense. 

Science writer Sara Chodosh held Prop 65 up to scientific scrutiny in a recent piece for Popular Science. Chodosh said while Prop 65 was a "noble effort," the legal language opened up a loophole for lawsuits demanding labels on items that likely aren't necessary. With Prop 65, Chodosh said it opened up the chance for "nonprofits and law firms to sue companies who they felt weren’t giving adequate warning." 

Acrylamide: cause for alarm or no big deal?

Acrylamide appears in LOTS of foods. Potato chips and fries. Bread. Even cookies. 

Chodosh says that the labels should not be cause of exceptional alarm. “The science is in. The amount of acrylamide anyone is exposed to is so below the limit you would need to get any kind of cancer, that it’s basically harmless.”

Mountain or molehill? Or mouse hill in this case…

From a scientific standpoint, how items get on list of official carcinogens may be lacking in reason. Chodosh said its a common challenge in scientific studies. How rodents react isn’t always indicative of how your average Californian will respond," said Chodosh. “The problem is, rats and mice aren’t humans and in fact, a lot of studies have shown that the way humans metabolize acrylamide is very different than how rats and mice do.”   

A sign posted at a Sacramento apartment complex warns of harmful chemicals on the premises, as required by Prop. 65.
A sign posted at a Sacramento apartment complex warns of harmful chemicals on the premises, as required by Prop. 65.
devinsandberg/Flickr

  

California's sillier warning labels

After coffee was the latest to receive the warning, Chodosh put together a list of other items with the Prop 65 labels that she thought simply went too far.  

Tiffany lamps - Unless you plan on having your elegant tiffany lamp for dinner… you’re in the clear.

Disneyland - Mickey and friends may look less friendly next to a Prop 65 warning poster. Amusement parks with big rides may give off some metal particles or diesel exhaust but are unlikely to cause you and the kiddies any harm.

Pumpkin puree - Not only is pumpkin now “basic,” it’s also a carcinogen. It’s got acrylamide just like coffee. So by that logic, your pumpkin latte is double death dose. Basics beware. Or... maybe not.

A warning to heed

Chodosh agreed with the warning label on alcohol. In this case, science points to alcohol as a leading cause of preventable cancer. So in this case, the Prop 65 warning makes a lot of sense and should give consumers a moment of pause. “It’s important to pay attention to the factors that actually do cause cancer becauase 45 percent of cancer death are preventable. Its just not as easy as avoiding a cup of coffee at Starbucks in the morning.”

Breakfast may soon come with more harbingers of doom. “The World Health Organization has a huge report showing a pretty clear link between processed meats and cancer," said Chodosh. But that's a warning label she thinks the science might back up. 

In the meantime, Chodosh recommends focusing on the things you can control. Live a healthy lifestyle and don't get too anxious over a little acrylamide.