Editorial: Coffee isn’t going to kill anyone. California needs a smarter system to let us know what’s dangerous

A posted Proposition 65 warning sign is seen behind a coffee mug at a Starbucks coffee shop in Burbank, Calif.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle ruled in March that coffee should carry the warning labels mandated by California’s Proposition 65 because the brew contains acrylamide, a chemical that some studies found increases the incidence of cancer in rats. It was an unfortunate outcome of a ridiculous lawsuit by an opportunistic attorney that never should have been filed.

Acrylamide is a naturally occurring chemical formed when coffee is roasted (and when starchy foods such as potatoes are cooked at high heat). But the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which reviewed 1,000 studies, reported last week that there is just no proof that coffee causes cancer. Furthermore, there’s a wealth of scientific data indicating that coffee consumption has health benefits and may even ward off premature death, perhaps because of the other chemicals present in the average cup of joe.

Berle’s Chicken Little ruling was made possible by Proposition 65, the state’s well-meaning but clunky Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. It requires all but the smallest businesses to warn people when knowingly exposing them to any of the approximately 850 chemicals that are confirmed or suspected carcinogens.


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This seems perfectly reasonable. Who wants to be exposed unknowingly to something that might cause cancer? But warnings are required for chemicals listed in Proposition 65 unless it is shown that exposure isn’t dangerous. Because the world is filled with chemicals that may in some instances and concentrations be dangerous but are difficult to avoid, California is littered with unhelpful and vague Proposition 65 warnings tacked up at office buildings, hospitals, parking lots and retailers, even online ones.

Fortunately for jittery coffee drinkers, state regulators took the unprecedented — and most welcome — step Friday of announcing plans to exempt coffee from the warnings in light of the new WHO report. We lift a figurative cold brew to California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment for taking this extra step to clear up the confusion. We also appreciate the new warning signs designed by the agency that identify at least one of the chemicals present by name and include an online link to more information about the exposure. The public badly needs more information about what it is being warned about and why.

But the fact that the agency had to make a rule just for coffee exposes a fundamental flaw in Proposition 65. The measure is so broad, its warnings may actually make it harder for Californians to assess the real dangers they encounter.

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