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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.


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  3. Dawn

    I still feel it's important for us to see these labels. I have Lyme disease and I'm an extremely immune compromised. So I need to avoid everything I possibly can and even the smallest thing affects me. So these labels mean a lot to me. I am sad that only California has these strict regulations because I feel our government should care more about our health and the things that they make should be made safer. Why is everybody getting cancer nowadays? Why are people getting so many things that they can't figure out how or where? We all know if we look around and think about it. But we choose to believe it won't happen to us and it probably doesn't happen to money. But children elderly and people like me so try to avoid these things and play it safe

    January 2, 2019 at 16:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Adam

    I received a Christmas gift that was a two-piece combo set from Ozark trail and what it is 1/8 inch folding knife and a 12 in 1 multi-tool. I just happened to notice that triangle with the explanation point in the middle and the word warning in bold black and it's saying cancer and reproductive harm and then gave the site that I listed above and I went to the site but I did not say what was and my knife or multi-tool that is considered to possibly cause cancer and reproductive harm. I just would like to know what is in it and I understand that the law said it had to put the label on certain things that were passed a certain number that made it have to have the warning label. I just would still feel better knowing what is actually and this Ozark trail two-piece combo 8 inch folder knife and 12 in 1 multi-tool and like I said it is from the company Ozark Trail® outdoor Education. I would really appreciate just a short answer on what could possibly be in this item? Since it is a folding Hunter knife and a multi tool that can be used 2 filet fish or any type of situation that could come in contact with food and I would like to know whether or not it is safe to use and in that Manner or not. Thank you very much and I look forward to your reply.

    February 1, 2019 at 10:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. lucas

    wow, thanks for the info, i also bought a M-Audio keyboard with this label and I passed some hours searching about it even before touch the damn thing XD now i'm alleviated

    March 29, 2019 at 14:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Judith Crabtree

    I just received the qwik fix zipper from a company who didn't report any warning on this item until I got it in the mail .I believe all items that have this warning should be seen clearly before a person orders

    April 27, 2019 at 15:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. JOSIEB

    This label does not worry me. I am more concerned, yes about cell phones to my ear, ingesting food coloring in food and drinks, the products I can not pronounce in my skin products and skin moisturizers, and shampoos that actually get into your blood stream. This I wish our government would make companies put labels on.

    May 13, 2019 at 11:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Karen Borgeson

    I purchased a pair of sunglasses and A Swarovski Crystal Necklace from Macys on line. Both items had theP65 label saying can cause Cancer or Reproductive issues and the Necklace cannot be worn by Children under fifteen. Should i return these products . I am afraid to wear these items.

    June 2, 2019 at 18:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Joann dasti

    I got a futon delivered from wakLmart.com and it says on the box the wood causes cancer and reproductive harm known in threaten of California is it safe to keep in my apartment or do unsent it back omg

    June 14, 2019 at 11:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Olga

    I just got a brand new, top of the line laptop that came with one of these labels on the box, since my 15yr old son will be using it, I was thinking of returning it. What should I do?
    My question is, do all laptops have chemicals or materials like lead that can cause cancer and cause reproductive harm?
    I'd appreciate your advice. Thanks!

    July 18, 2019 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
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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.