Last week California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) announced its intent to list Bisphenol-A (BPA) on the state’s Prop 65 List, which requires disclosure of substances known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. While I’m certainly glad that OEHHA has moved to regulate this endocrine-disrupting chemical commonly found in baby bottles, canned foods, and paper receipts—a move that is long overdue, in my opinion— I don’t believe it’s likely to result in additional protection for consumers, at least not in any tangible way.
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that Prop 65 exists. It’s because of this law and the work of groups like the Center for Environmental Health that we no longer allow the sale of lead-tainted candy in California. It’s why phthalates linked to birth defects in boys are no longer permitted in teething rings and sippy cups. Those are all fantastic outcomes of Prop 65, the only law of its kind in this country. However—and I’m not speaking as a scientist here, but as a mom and a consumer—it doesn’t do nearly enough to protect our families. Here’s why:
1 – Prop 65 Label alone doesn’t protect you
If you’ve ever browsed the housewares section of a California TJ Maxx store, you’ve likely seen a sign alerting you to the “presence of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm” somewhere in the vicinity of where you’re standing. From a consumer standpoint, this sign is all but useless because it doesn’t tell you which, among the hundreds of products on the shelf, might contain the chemicals you’re trying to avoid. That’s like having a waiter bring a plate of food to your table and telling you “Something on this plate is poisonous, but I’m not going to tell you what. Bon Appetite.”
It’s ludicrous, if you really think about it. More information is needed for consumers to truly be able to protect themselves from harm.
2 – Prop 65 labels are too vague and inconsistent
While the headers of the labels are usually identical, the contents below can vary widely. Many are in English-only and I have yet to see a label that specified the exact chemical of concern. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to the placement of the signs (i.e., every twelve inches, or on every shelf) for consumers to even make the assumption that a particular product is safe or unsafe.
3 – Retailers are getting away with murder
Ok, maybe not literally, but perhaps it’s death by a thousand cuts when you consider the health impacts of repeated low-dose exposure to toxins like lead or phthalates. One of my biggest pet peeves with Prop 65 is that it allows this absurdity to take place: Above a towering display of holiday-themed dishware complete with soup tureen, turkey platter, dessert plates—the whole business—you will see a Prop 65 sign that contains “Not intended to be used for food consumption.” Huh?
So, this cup here, that’s for what, storing pencils? And this soup tureen, should I use that as a foot bath? Are they serious? It makes steam come out of my ears to think that a store can offer something for sale that when used FOR ITS INTENDED PURPOSE, may expose you to lead. In my opinion, that makes retailers responsible for any health problems (and related expenses) one might incur as a result of using that Frosty the Snowman cereal bowl for eating cereal, instead of, say, shoveling snow.
4 – Prop 65 doesn’t work online
Even though Prop 65 is a California law, it doesn’t require online retailers who ship me a product to my home in California to inform me that what I’m buying contains one of the listed chemicals. Now, I’m a huge advocate of online shopping. As a busy mom of three I really don’t have the time to go driving all over the place from one store to another. If you can buy it online I’m sold. Better still if the check-out process is so smooth that I can buy it one-handed from my iPhone while nursing (thank you, Zuilily!), but I digress. The point is, I can’t buy something online and know for sure whether what I buy is free of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.
5 – Exposure limits don’t always mimic real-life exposures
In her post about the OEHHA announcement, NRDC senior scientist Sarah Janssen wrote, “The proposed MADL [maximum allowable daily allowance] for BPA is relatively high at 290 micrograms/day and is not likely to trigger any warning labels on canned food or beverages.” There have been numerous animal studies showing adverse health effects from exposure to BPA at levels much lower (25 micrograms/kg) than the MADL proposed by OEHHA and at levels observed in human fetal blood.
This means that it’s possible for consumers to be exposed to levels of BPA in a product that could cause harm and that exposure wouldn’t even warrant a Prop 65 label under the current levels proposed by OEHHA.
Again, don’t misunderstand, I think we are incredibly lucky to even have a law like Prop 65 in California. I think, often, of the other 49 states that don’t. It’s not that I want Prop 65 to go away; I just want it to go further.
Prop 65 part deux, anyone?