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Editorial

Warning: Too many warning signs are bad for your health

Starbucks, Whole Foods and about 80 other places in California that sell coffee may soon be forced to put warning labels on grande lattes and coffee bean packages to alert consumers that the product within contains acrylamide, a chemical that may be carcinogenic.

Wait a minute. Coffee causes cancer? Actually, research increasingly points to the opposite conclusion. Two large studies published earlier this year in the Annals of Internal Medicine found compelling indications that drinking coffee protects against heart disease, a number of cancers and other common ailments. Furthermore, researchers found that higher coffee consumption was associated with a lower risk of premature death. Maybe it has to do with the antioxidants present in a cup of joe that help the body heal itself, or maybe it’s some other properties of this complex brew.

But that doesn’t matter under Proposition 65. Formally known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, it requires businesses with 10 or more employees to warn the people when they may be exposed to any of about 850 chemicals that are confirmed or suspected carcinogens, regardless of whether that particular exposure might be dangerous.

Starbucks and some of the other businesses that were sued under the law have already put up the warnings signs the law requires, even though the case is still being argued in a Los Angeles courtroom. Consumers who pause to read the signs might reasonably conclude that their morning fix could harm or even kill them. But Proposition 65 warnings have become such a common sight in the Golden State — in parking lots, hotels, office buildings, amusement parks and gas stations, to name a few places — that they’re not so attention-grabbing any more.

This defeats the purpose of Proposition 65, which was conceived as a way to alert consumers to when they may be exposed to lead and other dangerous chemicals — and spur companies to use fewer of them. The lawsuits authorized by the law, however, have prompted businesses to post prophylactic warnings regardless of the severity of the risk. And the signs they post don’t provide the context to help people make educated decisions about the risk they face. Many don’t even identify which chemical or chemicals are at issue.

State regulators are updating the Proposition 65 signs to offer more information to consumers, including the identity of at least one of the chemicals present. Still, the update won’t fix the larger problem of having so many warnings posted that consumers have trouble telling large risks from small ones.

If the coffee industry loses this legal fight, and it easily could, it would mean countless additional warnings crowding the public space. And to what end? Removing acrylamide, which is produced when coffee is roasted, isn’t a viable option at the moment. Nor does it seem necessary yet — the cancer jury is still out on acrylamide, which also turns up when potatoes are fried and toast is burned.

Dangerous chemicals are so widespread, it’s impossible to conduct a normal life without encountering them. This is why it is important to warn consumers about serious health risks, not merely conjectural ones. Proposition 65 is not accomplishing that, and by rendering people numb to the warnings, it may in fact be doing more harm than good.

The prospect that warnings might be added to every cup of coffee seemed like a joke back in 1986, when opponents of the proposal touted its potential misuse. We pooh-poohed those claims at the time, even though we opposed the initiative as too inflexible.

“To be sure, the potential problems would not approach the grossly exaggerated levels predicted by the anti-Proposition 65 campaign, led by oil and chemical companies and the agriculture industry,” we wrote. “Passage of Proposition 65 will not lead to the banning of ordinary table salt or require warning labels on every apple sold or cup of coffee served in California.”

The fact that the most outlandish prediction may now come true only underscores the need for fixing or replacing this law.

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