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Taylor Cable Products > Cancer Warner Labels

Cancer Warning Labels Based on California’s Proposition 65

Labels warning that a product contains compounds that may cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm are now required on many household items sold in California. But people all over the country see them because many companies put the labels on all items that contain these compounds, even if they’re to be sold in other states. The warning labels can be found on many kinds of products, such as electrical wires, jewelry, padlocks, dishes, flashlights, and pesticides, to name just a few.


California’s Proposition 65, also called the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, was enacted in 1986. It is intended to help Californians make informed decisions about protecting themselves from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

As part of the law, the state is required to publish a list of chemicals that are “known to the State of California to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.” The list is updated at least once a year and now contains about 800 different chemicals. The complete list can be found on the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) website.

Some of the substances listed by OEHHA can affect the reproductive systems of men and/or women. Others are thought to cause cancer. Scientists classify all of these cancer-related substances at least as probable carcinogens, meaning that they might cause cancer in some people. But not all of them are known carcinogens (known to cause cancer) by groups and experts outside the state of California. This means that not every compound labeled as a possible cancer-causing substance has been proven to the worldwide scientific community to actually cause cancer.

About the labels required by Proposition 65

As part of the law, businesses selling products to people in California must provide “clear and reasonable warnings” before knowingly exposing people to any chemical on the list, unless the expected level of exposure would pose no significant cancer risk. This warning is often in the form of a label on the product or its packaging.

The law defines “no significant risk” as a level of exposure that would cause no more than 1 extra case of cancer in 100,000 people over a 70-year lifetime. So a compound can be unlabeled if a person exposed to the substance at the expected level for 70 years is estimated to have a 1 in 100,000 chance or less of getting cancer due to that exposure. The law also has similar strict cutoff levels for birth defects and reproductive harm.

Businesses decide whether to put warning labels on their products based on their knowledge of the types of chemicals in them. Manufacturers are not required to provide the OEHHA with any information about the products. That means the OEHHA doesn’t know which chemical the warning refers to, how exposure could occur, or how much of the chemical a consumer is likely to be exposed to. All of these factors are critical when determining how much risk it might pose. The OEHHA cannot offer information to help consumers figure out what the potential risk is and how to avoid it. These kinds of details can only come from the product’s manufacturer.

Lead-containing wire

The required labels on electrical wires such as computer cables, power cords, and holiday lights sold in California are slightly different from the labels on other products.

Why are my wires labeled with a cancer warning? The state of California keeps its own list of cancer-causing substances. It requires manufacturers who know that a consumer might be exposed to one of these substances from using their product to label that product with a clear warning. These labels are slightly different from other California Proposition 65 warning labels because of a lawsuit settlement in 2002.

Lawsuits filed in 2000 charged that electrical manufacturers were selling covered electrical wires and cable products in California without labels, despite the fact that the wires and cables had lead in their coverings. (Lead is a substance on the California list.) As part of the lawsuit settlement, manufacturers were directed to start attaching warning labels to electrical cords as of late 2003. Unlike other California warning labels, these labels actually name at least one of the risky substances. People who buy new electrical products are often concerned when they see these warning labels, but cords have contained lead for many years. Only the labels are new.

Will I be exposed to lead if I use this product, and if so, how? Many electrical wires and cables have small amounts of lead in their outside insulation (surface covering), which can rub off on the hands of people who touch the wires. People can be exposed to lead by ingesting it, so if they handle these wires and then eat or put their hands in their mouths without washing them first, they can take in small amounts of lead. The bigger hazard is likely to be for toddlers and babies who put wires or cables in their mouths. Since babies and toddlers crawl around on the floor, it can be challenging to keep them away from wires and cables.

Can using this product cause cancer? 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.

How can I avoid exposure (and protect children in the house)?

  • The most important point to avoid exposure is to wash your hands after handling the cords or cables to avoid swallowing any lead that rubbed off onto them.
  • Don’t eat or allow children to eat while handling lead-containing cords or stringing holiday lights.
  • Since small children are more likely to put cords, fingers, and other objects in their mouths, keep lead-containing wires and cables out of their reach.
  • Children are more affected by lead, and should always have their hands washed before handling food and eating.

More about cancer warning labels that mention California

For more information and frequently asked questions about Proposition 65, go to OEHHA’s website at: www.oehha.ca.gov/prop65.html.

Proposition 65 is reviewed in plain language at: www.oehha.ca.gov/prop65/background/p65plain.html.

For a fully updated list of all the chemicals and compounds that are known to the State of California to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity, go to: www.oehha.ca.gov/prop65/prop65_list/Newlist.html.

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