When California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) announced the weed killer glyphosate would top its list of chemicals suspected of causing cancer, environmental groups cheered – but not for the reasons you may suspect. The list, born from the 1986 law Proposition 65, is as much a boon to their pocketbook as it is to their moral authority.
OEHHA manages the state’s Prop 65 list, which mandates familiar warnings that coffee, high heels and now the world’s most widely used weed killer, “may contain chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer” and in some cases, “birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
It’s a harmless enough concept: Let consumers know when a product could damage their health. But Proposition 65 was written so poorly that it fails to accomplish even this most basic goal.
The threshold of harm is so arbitrarily low that it holds no meaning. To earn the title “carcinogen,” a chemical theoretically needs a 1 in 100,000 chance of causing cancer in someone exposed to it every day over a lifetime. For glyphosate, OEHHA is proposing a 1.1 milligram per day threshold, roughly one seventh what the average American adult consumes in a day, according to EPA estimates.
A product need only contain a substance at levels one one-thousandth the U.S. EPA’s threshold of safety before it’s blacklisted as a reproductive toxin.
Glyphosate fell into Proposition 65’s tangle despite twice passing the EPA safety tests required of all weed killers and being recently exonerated by both the United Nations and World Health Organization as “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans.”
It’s no wonder glyphosate was nominated to the list when groups like As You Sow continually stir controversy by publishing overtly biased and scientifically inaccurate studies questioning its safety.
Consequently, glyphosate joins more than 900 chemicals on Prop 65’s list.
“Offenders” are so numerous, researchers at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government raised their own warning: The state’s barrage of warnings on seemingly harmless items may be conditioning Californians not to take their “warning” seriously at all.
Proposition 65 celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, but California’s rate of several common cancers – including mesothelioma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and cancers of the cervix, liver, ovaries, stomach and testicles – are either no different from or higher than national averages. The consequence makes sense, since the state’s current system of slapping a label on everything makes it nearly impossible to determine if a notice foreshadows real harm or if it’s yet another workaround to avoid being sued.
If the law doesn’t help the public, why do environmental advocacy groups like the Center for Environmental Health support Proposition 65 enough to testify that glyphosate’s harm threshold should be set unreasonably low?
Proposition 65’s unique “bounty hunter” provision allows activist groups to enforce the law’s compliance via lawsuit, and collect a portion of the penalties businesses pay. With fines for a single violation reaching up to $2,500 per day, there is a huge incentive to make easy money off those unknowingly violating the law.
Though Center for Environmental Health and As You Sow claim to champion public health, public records indicate the groups earned a combined $5.5 million using Proposition 65 to exploit businesses since 2000.
Businesses owners whose products would never realistically cause cancer or reproductive harm faced 760 lawsuits last year. And with the top-selling weed killer joining the fold next year, that number is sure to skyrocket.
There is nominal reason to celebrate. Recently, Democratic Assemblyman Ed Chau introduced a bill to limit the number of meritless lawsuits filed under Proposition 65, but the provision continues to languish in the state Senate. Until Californians realize what little effect the warnings on their sunglasses, pancake mix, and parking lots have on public health, Prop 65’s lawsuit-inducing legacy will endure.
Joseph Perrone, Ph.D, is chief science officer for the Center for Accountability in Science, a nonprofit organization supported by businesses, foundations and individuals.