“This product contains chemicals, including lead, known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling.”
That sounds dangerous! Can you guess which product this label is commonly found on? The correct answer is electrical cords. It could be your laptop charger, Christmas lights, or even a household extension cord. Regardless of the type or function, these warning labels can be found on almost every electrical cord today due to California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.
Companies that sell products in the state are required to issue a clear warning about the potential danger of California’s list of harmful chemicals. The intent was to provide consumers with chemicals that were known to cause cancer, but that list has since grown to include probable carcinogens. Companies selling products nationwide were forced to decide whether to label their products sold in California differently than the other 49 states or attach the warnings for all products regardless of where they are sold. Many companies chose the most efficient method of using the same packaging and labels for the entire United States.
Are power cords really that dangerous?
Because lead has been listed as a possible carcinogen, manufacturers must prove to the state of California that the amount in their power cord is safe. According to a Cancer.org article about the warning labels under Proposition 65,
“Lead is a probable carcinogen, meaning it can probably cause cancer in some situations. But there is no way to assess the risk or even level of exposure for any one person handling electrical cords or cables.
The amount of lead a person might absorb will depend on what the person does with the cord and how long they handle it. People are exposed to lead mainly by swallowing or breathing powdered lead. The lead found in cords is not powdered, so users are not at risk of inhaling it.
Studies that looked at lead’s potential ability to cause cancer looked at people with high exposure levels on a constant, daily basis. This means that the effects of less frequent exposures to tiny amounts may not have any observable effects. It may also help to know that, in case of larger exposures, there are other symptoms of lead toxicity that would likely be a concern long before cancer could develop.”
California’s intent with the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 was to give as much information to consumers as possible about chemical risks before making a purchase. Over the years lawyers have brought countless lawsuits against companies when they have caught them not displaying a warning for a chemical that is on the state list. This has led to generic warning signs posted not just on products, but in public places such as Disneyland and parking lots.
Are these warning signs still serving their purpose today, or are people ignoring them because of how frequently they are seen?