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Adding Roundup to Prop. 65 list is a victory, but will Californians heed the warning?

Adding Roundup to Prop. 65 list is a victory, but will Californians heed the warning?
The weed killer Roundup will soon be added to California’s list of more than 850 chemicals known to cause cancer. (Reed Saxon / Associated Press)

The weed killer glyphosate, known by the brand name Roundup and used by backyard gardeners and farmers the world round, will be added on July 7 to California's list of more than 850 chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm.

The listing won't restrict sales or use of the world's most popular herbicide, only require that businesses alert people when it is present in levels above what is considered safe. Nevertheless, it's an important victory for those working to curtail the pervasiveness of the herbicide, particularly in agricultural uses. Having an agency such as California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment declare the chemical dangerous lends credibility to their argument about the dangers of glyphosate.

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So far, data about glyphosate's cancer threat to humans has been suggestive, but not conclusive. Because it was listed as "probably carcinogenic" to humans by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, it meets the Proposition 65 guidelines for inclusion on the list. Whether or not glyphosate is eventually indicted in human cancer, it does pose sufficient risks to the environment to raise concern over the more than 300 million pounds of the stuff used in the U.S. every year.

For instance, studies have shown a stronger carcinogenic link in research conducted on animals. As well, its effectiveness in weed killing has supported unsustainable farming practices. And don't get me started on how Roundup use is imperiling monarch butterflies, which require milkweeds for their continued survival. So if a Proposition 65 listing helps curtail the wanton use of Roundup, I'm all for it.

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But let's be frank about what this action means for Californians, who have been ignoring the Proposition 65 warnings for just about as long as they have been around. The problem is that Proposition 65 warning signs and labels are everywhere you look — office buildings, gas stations, pot shops, just to name a few. That's partly due to the fact that modern life means we are constantly surrounded by both naturally occurring and human made chemicals, including the more than 850 on the Proposition 65 list. Nor do the warning labels have the space to provide the contextual information that would help people effectively evaluate their relative risk of exposure.

What has also contributed to the proliferation of warnings is that the enforcement of the state law is driven by litigation initiated by private citizens (bounty hunters, some have called them) against noncompliant businesses. Just to be safe, California businesses have taken to placing those warnings everywhere, even if a listed chemical isn't present. Better safe than sued.

Since Californians can't escape the chemicals, or the many signs warning about them, the only rational reaction has been to ignore them. Obviously that was not the intent of the 1986 ballot measure that created the state law to identify and list dangerous chemicals, but it does show that warnings without action or context aren't particularly helpful. But that's another editorial. Go Roundup listing!

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