What You Need to Know About that California Proposition 65 Cancer Warning on Your Shoes
Boots? Wedges? Oxfords? Flats? Can’t get enough of them (just ask my husband … and our closet). But the chemical warning you might catch on a pair of shoes online? I’d like to go without that worrisome little label.
The caveat to an otherwise exciting purchase reads: “Warning: This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.” And there’s no other explanation than that—not how serious we should take these labels, why said shoes or other fashion pieces are for sale if they could create such health problems, what chemicals are in them, nothing. So, I did a little digging. Here’s everything you need to know about this warning and how significant it really is (hint: not very).
Where it came from
According to the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), the warning started in 1986 through the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Environment Act. Better known as Proposition 65, the California initiative was an answer to growing voter concerns on being exposed to toxic chemicals.
A law for those shipping to and in California, companies with 10 or more employees are required to provide warnings for products that can cause exposures to significant levels of any of the roughly 850 chemicals labeled by the OEHHA as dangerous. If they do not provide a warning and exposures to chemicals occur through use of their products, companies can be subject to lawsuits from private citizens, consumer advocacy groups, district attorneys, the California Attorney General’s Office or others. Penalties can be as much as $2,500 “per violation per day.”
After 29 years, most Californians will tell you they see this warning everywhere. But online shopping is taking it beyond California state lines to the rest of the country, as some nationwide companies opt to put the warning on all products to safeguard against the penalty all together.
Where you’ll see it
Fashion-wise, you are likely to see the label on shoes, accessories and clothing that contains textiles like leather and synthetic products. It means the product contains one or more of the chemicals listed in Proposition 65 and that you will be exposed to that chemical(s) using the product.
How much you are exposed to is impossible to tell unless you consult each company directly. OEHHA compiles the list of dangerous chemicals and determines the level in which a warning label is required, but each individual company is responsible for determining if their product requires a label.
According to the OEHHA website, “a business may choose to provide a warning simply based on its knowledge, or assumption, about the presence of a listed chemical without attempting to evaluate the levels of exposure.” In other words, some companies may use the label without actually testing if the product needs it, so there are circumstances when the warning could be there for no reason.
So, are these products dangerous?
Good news: not as dangerous as they sound. It turns out experts even have trouble agreeing on that bit. Here are the facts:
To help companies determine if they need to provide the warning, OEHHA established safe harbor levels. A safe harbor level is an amount of a chemical that poses no significant risk. For chemicals causing cancer, there is no significant risk if the chance of developing cancer is 1 in 100,000 or less over a 70-year lifetime. In other words, one person being exposed to a chemical for 70 years would have a 1 in 100,000 chance of actually getting cancer from that exposure.
For birth defects and reproductive harm, they take the level of a chemical that has been proven to pose no harm and divide that by 1,000 to determine the safe harbor level. If the amount of chemical goes over this quantity, a warning is required. “These safe harbor levels are levels of exposure in micrograms per day,” says Chief Martha Sandy, Ph.D., of OEHHA’s Reproductive and Cancer Hazard Assessment Branch.
Sam Delson, deputy director for External and Legislative Affairs at the California OEHHA. says the warning does not mean major risk: “A Proposition 65 warning does indicate some level of risk, but in most cases the risk is fairly low. If there was some sort of immediate danger there would likely be some other reason why they couldn’t sell it.” The initiative, explains Delson, aims to educate people on what they are buying and incentivize companies to make their products safer.
Ultimately, the decision of risk is up to each individual. Delson says if you see a product with a warning and then find a comparable product without the warning, you may want to choose the product without the warning.
However, Delson himself is a cancer survivor and still uses products with the Proposition 65 label: “I take cancer very seriously, I’m 11 years cancer free, but I personally don’t get alarmed because I know there are risks in everything we do in life.”
At the time I spoke with Delson, the office was in the process of proposing changes to the warnings “to make them more useful and informative.”
The proposed edits include listing the specific chemicals in each product on the label and steering consumers to a website that includes information on hazards and how to lessen your exposure.