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.

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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.