Right to Know
Has Right to Know Gone Too Far?

Right to know regulations are great for employees. They help educate the employees to understand all of the hazards they may be exposed to. OSHA’s philosophy behind their hazard communication standard is based around the “right to know” concept. One key to the system is the training of employees to not only know about a hazard, but to understand the hazard. Some states have implemented individual right to know requirements to provide information to workers above and beyond the federal level.

One state in particular has gone way beyond and branched the right to know into the consumer sector. Yes, I’m talking about California and their Prop 65 legislation. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) website (click here), Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, was enacted as a ballot initiative in November 1986. The proposition was intended to protect California citizens and the State’s drinking water sources from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm, and to inform citizens about exposures to such chemicals.

The list of chemicals covered by Prop 65 can be found on OEHHA’s website (click here). Note that they specify coverage to citizens, not just workers. This means that Prop 65 applies everywhere in California, not just workplaces where employees are trained to understand what the information really means. It also means that products that are labeled for Prop 65 make their way into other states, where consumers have no idea what the statements are telling them. Informing citizens is done via labeling and/or signage at point of exposure, point of purchase, or point of entry to a facility, as applicable. This can lead to indifference in CA and mild panic in other states.

As a resident of the state of NY who has spent a lot of time in the state of CA, I have seen both sides. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for right to know legislation, but has California gone too far with Prop 65? Let me give some examples.

I like to go camping and have slowly been adding gear to my camping supplies. I recently purchased a camping axe at a large retail store in NY to use for splitting logs for campfires. Since I know what Prop 65 is, I was not at all bothered when I saw this warning on the axe:

Prop 65 warning on an axe

Most NY consumers would be alarmed by this warning. The thing that most consumers don’t understand about Prop 65 is that the threshold for warning requirements is based on the actual exposure to the listed chemical. The majority of the time, the manufacturer has no idea what the exposure level to the end user will be, so they include the warnings any time the chemical is present. In the case of my axe, the likelihood of being exposed to the threshold quantity of a hazardous ingredient during normal use is probably zero. This is why I wasn’t bothered by the warning (and now fondly refer to my camping axe as the “cancer axe”). A citizen, regardless of the state they are in, who does not understand the legislation could be scared away from purchasing or using a product based on the warnings that appear, even though the risk of exposure to the hazard is essentially zero.

In California, citizens are bombarded by Prop 65 warnings to the point that they may be losing their effectiveness. I like to equate it to the story of the boy who cried wolf. The warnings are everywhere, so how is a citizen to know when they are really at risk?

During my frequent visits to California, I have come across some Prop 65 warnings in more locations and on more products than I can count. I recruited my father, a resident of CA and avid photographer, to help me out and get me some photos of warnings. Below are some of our favorite finds, to give an idea of what Californians see on a daily basis.

This was found in a national book store chain, on a shelf that held fabric and plastic covers for e-readers, cell phones, and other electronic devices:

Prop 65 warning on a shelf inside a book store

This warning sticker was a more recent discovery for me. These stickers are showing up on the driver’s side windows of new vehicles:

New vehicle Prop 65 warning window

And my last example, found on the door of a fast food restaurant:

Prop 65 warning on the door of a fast-food restaurant

So back to my original question, has right to know gone too far? I think in some cases, it has. Overwhelming citizens with warnings can be counterproductive and dilute the effectiveness of the intent of the legislation. Right to know is a great concept, as long as there is also understanding as to what the information provided means and how it applies to the situation at hand.

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