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 (109 Responses)
  1. Questionable001

    Recently bought a shirt that contains this label. Even though it is a favorite, I am not going to let my son wear the shirt. If what is in the product is minimal than why label it? It is creating concern and confusion. Why is California doing things so different than all other states?

    April 9, 2015 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Ca;

    We recently purchased 2 ERICA furniture throws that had a cancer warning label. This is our 3rd set of furniture throws and the first to see a cancer warning label. Is there any furniture throws out there that does not have a cancer warning label on then???

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  38. Tracey

    Just purchased a pair of sunglasses with the label. I glad I found this site to explain it. Personally I appreciate the warning. We are exposed to so many elements. It is helpful to know in order to make decisions that might affect health. In addition, maybe labels might compel manufactures to choose other materials if it affects their bottom line. I will return glasses, but, not before I write company and explain my return.

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    • Shannon Elizabeth

      Good for you! More people should do this and maybe companies will start caring more about the quality of the product they are manufacturing. More and more, people are complacent in taking things like this more serious. They feel that "everyone is using this, eating this, wearing this, etc." and they are ok with it because of that reason alone. I hope more people get serious about holding companies accountable to providing safe products for us all!

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  41. Steve in the UK

    I find this type of editorial useful in bringing this code/regulation to the masses but I found it slightly lacking in explanation. Here in the UK we currently come under EU directives which places similar obligations on suppliers to comply. Once all standards are met the item/object would have the letters "CE" marked on the item and displayed on the outer packaging. For instance a baby's toy marked CE would be safe enough for the baby to put it in its mouth without knowing what its made of. This stops suppliers being able to comply by way of labelling all their products with the proposition 65 notice without reference to what they actually comprise. This all leads back to the problem experienced by the writer, rather than actually finding out what the item comprises and if it really is hazardous. They like most others chose to stick a warning on it

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.