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October 28th, 2008
01:50 PM ET

Cancer warning labels on products: A cause for concern?

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

For several months I have enjoyed recording digital music files through my keyboard, thanks to a simple device that connects it to my laptop. But it wasn’t until recently that I discovered that the following label came with it:

WARNING: 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.

I freaked out. How could a set of cables attached to a small blue blinking cylinder cause cancer? The USB connector and keyboard inputs seemed harmless enough, and I hadn’t felt obvious symptoms while making music. Was I risking my life for the sake of my four-person fan base?

So I called the company, M-Audio. Apparently, manufacturers have to put this label on certain products to comply with Proposition 65, a California law that requires a warning on anything containing lead or other hazardous substances found to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

Under this law, whose full title is The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, warnings must be placed on products with a chemicals present in amounts larger than what the California government has decided is a “safe harbor number.”

These requirements are pretty strict. For example, for a cancer-causing chemical, according to the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, “a person exposed to the chemical at the ‘no significant risk level’ for 70 years would not have more than a ‘one in 100,000’ chance of developing cancer as a result of that exposure.” So, if there would be more than one excess case of cancer out of 100,000 people over a period of 70 years because of exposure to that amount of the substance, slap on that label.

It’s not just computing equipment. Amazon.com outlines for its customers required warnings for California consumers placed on tools, lead crystal glasses, ceramic tableware, jewelry, Tiffany style lamps, electrical cords, beauty products, and even motor vehicles.

The consequences for violating Proposition 65 can be pretty fierce. One Los Angeles company had to pay a $10 million fine for failing to label lead-tainted lunch boxes (they sold 100,000 of them to the state health department), the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year.

Still, does that mean I have to wash my hands every time I touch the cord? Mark Williams, spokesperson for M-Audio, says, “No! My gosh, no!”

In general, he says, electronics products carry this label because of the materials used in circuit boards, such as lead, for example. It’s not like there’s pesticide sprayed on the surface, he says.

In fact, according to the company’s official statement on the issue, a device with a lead warning might not have any lead at all:

Even in situations where an electronics device is completely free of lead, there is always a chance that standard third-party-manufactured accessories packaged with the device (such as a power cable, USB cable, or power supply) may contain trace amounts of lead. Out of professional diligence and a commitment to fully comply with the law, M-Audio properly marks all applicable products with a Prop 65 lead warning.

Maybe people are used to seeing these labels by now. Williams said mine was the first call he’s received on the issue in his five months in media relations at the company.

So, now I will make my techno versions of acoustic indie songs in relative peace.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. Terry

    Back in the day, pencils had lead in them, I know I had them in my mouth, chewing away while in class or doing homework. I was actually stabbed with one when a classmate was handing one to me, I still have the mark on my palm if I look really hard for it, that was over 30 yrs ago and I'm still alive and kicking.

    October 28, 2008 at 18:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Breezy

    Pencil "lead" is made with graphite and has been made with graphite since the 1500s or so. (Never lead. That was a misnomer.)

    October 29, 2008 at 13:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rion

      and yet everyone calls them "led" pencils, not "graphite pencils; until now, I shall call them "graphite" utensil.

      August 28, 2012 at 09:09 | Report abuse |
  3. Terry Marcellin-Little

    The following text, as borrowed from Wikipedia, points out that the "lead" in pencils has been - for many a century now - made of graphite, etc., but not the (highly toxic) element Lead which was used by scribes in ancient Rome. I'm assuming you weren't chewing on pencils in school THAT long ago...

    "A pencil is a writing or drawing instrument consisting of a thin stick of pigment (usually graphite, but can also be coloured pigment or charcoal) and clay, usually encased in a thin wood cylinder..."

    ".. The archetypal pencil may have been the stylus, which was a thin metal stick, often made from lead and used for scratching on papyrus, a form of early paper. They were used extensively by the ancient Egyptians and Romans. The word pencil comes from the Latin word pencillus which means 'little tail'... "

    October 29, 2008 at 14:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. mary peck

    Now, the PAINT might have contained lead!

    October 29, 2008 at 18:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. OhBoy

    My main problem with all of these laws that go too far, including those that force you to be safe with your own life (seat belts) is the following.

    Are we trying to make people live forever? We do not have the room or resource for humans that live until 150 years old. Death is required. As horrible as that sounds, people need to die sooner or later.

    Frankly, a large portion of the population does nothing to add to the overall good. I'm talking about the increase in criminals and stupid kids that will never go anywhere. A bigger population just makes it worse by having less to go around, hindering the production of better people.

    I know this all sounds bad, even fascist in a way but its a fact that needs to be considered.

    Let people live they way they want and take the risks they want as long it doesn't pass on that risk to someone else. If they die....then so be it. I'd rather live to the fullest for a short period than lead a long dull existence. Live and stop worrying about death! There's nothing you can do to stop it.

    October 29, 2008 at 19:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kat

      I know this sounds horrible...but you're an idiot!

      March 19, 2011 at 16:53 | Report abuse |
    • jackson

      well thats eugenics for you buddy. If your not intelligent enough to want to know when there are neurotic or caustic chemicals in your food then eat it! survival of the fittest

      May 4, 2013 at 22:15 | Report abuse |
  6. Al

    I wonder if they use lead in the production of the warning sticker.

    October 29, 2008 at 21:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Joel

    Take a look at your Christmas tree lights this December, folks. Lead warnings all over them.

    October 30, 2008 at 15:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Joe not the plummer

    While I agree that pencils we've all used did not contain lead......

    I would not quote Wikipedia to make a point, not a reputable source of accurate information.

    October 30, 2008 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Joe, Boulder CO

    Personally, I won't buy any product with this warning label. The onus should be on the manufacturer to use alternative and safer materials... why should I spend money on something that's going to give me and my family cancer. 1 in 100,000 (even after 70 years) is far too much. This junk needs to get off the market. Wake up, people.

    October 30, 2008 at 17:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jodi

      I couldn't agree more! Thanks for your post!

      June 17, 2011 at 22:31 | Report abuse |
    • Rion

      Does this stuff cause cancer in 1 in 100,000 people? I think the probability itself presents such a dramatic differential it would require an instrumentation of measurement not yet, or maybe ever, available to the upright bipedal humanoid. It seems like they could also say 1 in 100,000 people who's favorite color is blue get cancer, which may be true, and so on. At any rate, I'd like to know what scientific backing is available, if any, before I try to return that awesome knife I just bought. Let me know.

      August 28, 2012 at 09:18 | Report abuse |
    • Rion

      I do, however, see where this could set a horrible precedent. WARNING labels are placed on everything; we buy them. Then there becomes no way to distinguish the highly toxic one from the not so toxic ones. Very bad business in my opinion if this is the case, and usually is. Look at our water supply.

      August 28, 2012 at 09:23 | Report abuse |
  10. Tiffany

    Death by music player? I think not.
    I think this law is just a LITTLE bit harsh.

    "...one in 100,000’ chance of developing cancer as a result of that exposure.”

    Yeah, let us attempt to save that 100, 101st person from dying of cancer from a MIDI used for 70 years straight even though it was probably obsolete by the fifth year they had it, and that the other 100,000 people will be saved, even though half of the other 100, 000 people will probably have cancer in some form anyway. Give me a break. But I do admit, as a rabid nature lover, I do give them props for ,erm, exuberance?

    October 30, 2008 at 17:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. John

    My only fear with this is the meaning of the label is diminished. How does a person know how much lead or other dangerous chemical is in an object? I would imagine some products bearing that label may actually be dangerous to handle more than necessary, while evidently there is no danger at all to handle other products.

    October 30, 2008 at 18:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Frank

    It's amazing how there's no one leading one big effort to twarf the cancer epidemic. People die of cancer by the hundreds of thousands and no one knows why. They just keep going to work, hoping to be avoided. First there was the Dodo bird, then there was the chemical soup happy Dodo humans. We're killing the environment in which we live in and we're killing others and ourselves. Some Godly image. Looks like we are doing the same thing as a cancer does. -Frank was here.

    October 30, 2008 at 21:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Tom

    The lead in Led Zeppelin was also found to be non-toxic but had excellent riffs.

    Tom

    October 30, 2008 at 22:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. David

    I understand the need for the warning labels on products, but there has to be a better measuring stick than the "more than one excess case of cancer out of 100,000 people over a period of 70 years". That is beyond extreme and just plain silly. Given what has been described in the article, I'm surprised we don't see that sticker on EVERY single item sold.

    California had a good intent in writing that law, but they went beyond sane. Overkill like this will cause those warning stickers to be useless as no one will bother to read/care about them since they will be ubiquitous.

    October 31, 2008 at 10:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Rob

    Just to clear up a point on some of the earlier posts - the lead in pencils was in the yellow paint on the outside, not in the graphite.

    October 31, 2008 at 12:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Sandra Ihrig

    Lead in anything is a bad thing. My family was poisoned by lead in our drinking water. It came from plumbing materials used to deliver the drinking water. It was a nightmare trying to identify what was causing our symptoms. The most vulinerable population are children who have developing brains and the fetus who can't expel the lead once exposed.

    November 1, 2008 at 14:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Jagad Guru fan

    I agree with John on this one. It is becoming more difficult to say what is really dangerous and what is not. Despite that, I appreciate labels of the sort that are definitely more honest than say- the mobile phone retailers who are quick to declare that mobile phone or wifi radiation is completely safe.

    November 1, 2008 at 22:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Jeramie

    But the article brought out the main drawback – out of fear of litigation, every company will put the sticker on every item, regardless of whether it contains lead or not, simply to cover their bases. We're reaching a point where every item on the market will have a generic, overly broad warning that it might in some way cause harm.

    Anyone using a computer right now has toxic heavy metals right next to them. To say "I refuse to buy these items for my health" might as well throw their computer, car, TV, cell phone, etc out right now. This is nothing new in our lives.

    November 7, 2008 at 10:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Steve Jones

    You are right you shouldn't buy products with this warning label...but the warning label was in manual which was sealed in a plastic bag inside the box! Maybe if they put it on the outside like a pack of cigarettes but when they put in the back of the manual right after the Japanese section how am I suppose to see it before I buy it? Am I really going to go through the trouble of returning this product now? What a pointless thing! Now I don't like the idea of using this keyboard and my desire to study is really diminished.

    February 24, 2009 at 23:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • joe-Socker

      see your point. but if is for that nobody will buy nothing. the device has label inside nside because is intended to telll people to wash hands for lead in cord. million s of cords on thousands of products.

      December 5, 2011 at 19:18 | Report abuse |
  20. amandawltz

    My boyfriend just bought me a Bulova watch that had this label inside. I almost made him send him back. This article puts my mind at ease. Now I feel awful that I hurt his feelings over such a silly thing. I have a better chance of getting cancer from my own micowave or tv.

    October 29, 2010 at 13:56 | Report abuse | Reply
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  39. sittingindrivel

    Dear Ms. Landau,

    I'm surprised at the mediocre standards of journalism CNN.com holds you to.

    You interviewed ONE individual for your article, who happened to be the company spokesperson selling the item with the proposition 65 label.

    Is it any surprise that he would say that there is no cause for alarm?

    Poor journalism aside, it is irresponsible to the public for you to post biased opinions as fact.

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  41. steven

    When I was 9 years old 1952, I found a piece of lead. The dimensions of the lead were about 4 inches long, 1 1/2 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick. I polished it with my hands daily, it was so smooth I even rubbed it on my face. This went on for about 3 months, until I lost the piece of lead. Knock on wood! I am now 67 years old, no signs of cancer yet. I have 4 healthy children ranging from ages of 37 to 47. I have 8 wonderful Grandchildren 5 to 20 years, all healthy. I thank God above for all.

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  42. marinah

    i have this beauty product
    the Revive beauty soft touch skin care tool and it has a warning of a chemical in it that has to do with cancer and i've been kinda freaking out to behonest and i didnt notice the warning till i got home and read the whole box

    :[ am not gonna get cancer am i ?

    am a teenager also so i do believe everything i read

    July 25, 2013 at 01:20 | Report abuse | Reply
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    I find it ironic that California has cancer causing labels on all these innocent products, yet there are no warning labels on foods that are doused with cancer causing pesticides and herbicides( or preservatives for that matter). Aspartame itself causes poisoning resulting in MS symptoms. Now that's a label worth putting on.

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