California’s Proposition 65: The Safe Drinking Water And Toxic Enforcement Act Of 1986

C. Jarrett Dieterle
Resident Senior Fellow, Competition Policy
Steven Greenhut
Resident Senior Fellow and Western Region Director, State Affairs

Key Points

California’s Prop. 65 mandated labels on common products to warn the public of potential risks of cancer and birth defects.

Private attorneys are now targeting coffee and food manufacturers because of a chemical known as acrylamide.

The California Chamber of Commerce has filed a suit against the state attorney general, enjoining him to stop enforcing “a false, misleading and highly controversial cancer warning.”


Anyone who has spent time in California has seen labels on products that they buy in stores, such as “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer.” Similar signs are placed in public places, including airports and even Disneyland.

In 1986, California voters approved, by a 63 percent to 37 percent margin, a statewide initiative known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, or Proposition 65. The measure declared that the people of California “find that hazardous chemicals pose a serious potential threat to their health and well-being” and that “state agencies have failed to provide them with adequate protection.”

As a result, the state now maintains a database of potentially dangerous chemicals, which companies can use to determine if something requires the aforementioned warning label. The act is enforced not just by the state attorney general and district attorneys, but by private law firms that can file a “right of action” on behalf of consumers. Companies that are found in violation of Prop. 65 for lacking the requisite warning label on their product are subject to fines as high as $2,500 a day, with these private attorneys receiving as much as 25 percent of any civil penalties.

That has led to one of the proposition’s major controversies, as attorneys seek multimillion-dollar settlements by reviewing products for possible violations of the law. Advocates see it as a means to reduce the number of chemicals used in their products. “The ideal number of warnings is no warnings,” Prop. 65 author David Roe told Vox, “because the ideal reaction is that businesses get rid of exposures to toxic chemicals.”

Critics say the measure has done little to boost public health, but has instead piled new layers of regulation on businesses, which must place warnings on virtually everything. Because the exposure thresholds are low, warnings must be placed on common items such as cat litter, shampoo and household cleaners.

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