In reality, Prop. 65 turns ordinary regulation on its head, by setting extremely wide margins of safety. It then forces businesses to prove – in lawsuits brought by private individuals and groups who get to keep part of the penalties and all of their attorney’s fees – that the claimed exposures do not exceed those standards. In 1988, there were 235 cancer-causing substances and 30 reproductive toxicants listed as known hazards. Today that has expanded to more than 800.

Don’t get me wrong. Prop. 65 forced some companies to eliminate, or reformulate, the listed chemicals in their products to do business in California. This has likely led to improved safety for California consumers. But, by the same token, Prop. 65 creates alarm about trace amounts of chemicals that have no actual risk or have a risk that is obviously outweighed by the benefit of the food.

Vegetables may contain naturally occurring elements because they grow in the ground, and fish contain mercury because they live in the sea. If we make trace chemicals the salient fact, then we discourage the consumption of healthy foods. Having so many product labels and posted sign warnings also undermines warnings about real risks such as unpasteurized milk.

I might mention that most agricultural chemicals on the Prop. 65 list have not been the target of lawsuits, mainly because the toxicological evaluation and testing of crop protection products are more extensive than even drug products. Other listed chemicals haven’t been so lucky, such as french fries, which allegedly expose consumers to an omnipresent carcinogen called acrylamide; wood dust; and even steroidal estrogens such as oral contraceptives.

We can also laugh at the absurdities of some of the chemicals listed, which includes some medications (e.g., the anti-seizure medication diazepam, vitamin A and even aspirin.)