Chances are good that in the past 22 years, you’ve seen warning labels on everyday items cautioning that you’ve been exposed to chemicals that the state of California has deemed dangerous.

Chances are slim, however, that you have actually developed cancer or endangered your unborn child due to such activities as operating a flashlight, holding a fishing rod, unwinding a set of Christmas tree lights, or squeezing shampoo from a bottle.

Why? Because despite their warning labels, these products contain only trace amounts of chemicals that the state has placed on its 18-page list of substances that are “known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” That fishing rod could still be a menace, but only if you rubbed your fingers on its lead-graphite composite for 40 years straight and kept sucking your thumb into adulthood.

The law behind this lunacy, known as Proposition 65, was approved by voters in 1986 with the best of intentions. To protect the water supply, the mandate told companies to warn the public when they were exposed to even tiny amounts of dozens of cancer-causing substances.
Since then, however, the list of warning-worthy chemicals has expanded to an unmanageable 600 entries. Keeping pace with that explosive growth is the number of lawsuits filed against makers of hammers, billiard-cue chalk, canned tuna, and potato chips. They have all been sued for declining to embrace the skull-and-crossbones as their company logo.

Just last week, potato chip companies were strong-armed into a multimillion-dollar lawsuit settlement. Snack makers now have to reduce the trace levels of a substance that shows up naturally when potatoes are fried. California disregarded evidence that a person of average weight would have to eat 62 pounds of chips every day for his entire lifetime before a risk of cancer might develop.

And now the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, the agency that enforces Prop. 65, is poised to attach another ring to this circus. The agency has proposed to loosen the standards that add new chemicals to its enforcement list. Under the new system, any chemical that’s considered harmful by the California Department of Labor would also qualify for a Prop. 65 warning label. But the state Labor Code itself incorporates every single chemical considered harmful by the federal government, without regard to its level of exposure.

And here’s why that matters: In Washington, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can declare that a chemical is dangerous if just one research study says it might pose a threat, despite other studies claiming otherwise.

Sacramento can already take scary-sounding chemicals and frighten people on the basis of a few parts-per-billion that will never add up to anything risky. But now perfectly ordinary substances will get a Mr. Yuk poison-control label because the federal government – 3,500 miles away – has found a single study concluding they might be harmful in doses you will never encounter.

Would a caffeine warning label scare you off your morning coffee? How about pie fillings, jam, pickles and beer? Those preservatives are just begging for government intervention.

It’s only a matter of time before foods with warning labels will outnumber foods without. And as warnings become more common, they will become even more meaningless.

Perhaps it’s time to short-circuit the entire process. What we really need is a billboard on every beach, inside every airport and train station, at every interstate border crossing, and inside every hospital delivery room: “WARNING: The State of California contains chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

We’ve all been duly warned. No more lawsuits. We can go back to eating our potato chips in peace.

The Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit organization funded mostly by restaurants and food companies to defend those industries against burdensome government regulation and to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.