What Is California Prop 65? A Quick Overview

What is California Prop 65, who does it apply to, and what are the penalties for noncompliance?

What Is California Prop 65? A Quick Overview

What Is California Prop 65? 

Officially called the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, California Prop 65 became law via a state ballot initiative and was entered into force in 1988. Prop 65 requires businesses to provide warning labels about “significant exposures” to chemicals with known adverse health effects, including links to cancer and birth defects. While these labels are most often found on commercial products, they may also appear in homes, businesses, workplaces, and other environments with significant chemical exposures. 

When Proposition 65 initially went into effect in 1988, the list of chemicals covered by the law included 235 substances. The state of California is legally obligated to update the list every year, and today it encompasses approximately 900 chemicals, including arsenic, cadmium, and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, the notorious insecticide known for its slew of detrimental effects on human beings and the environment.

Who Administers California Prop 65?

Cal Prop 65 is administered by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). OEHHA is a department within the California Environmental Protection Agency, and is primarily responsible for identifying and evaluating the health risks of chemical contaminants. According to the OEHHA website, the agency’s mission is to “protect human health and the environment through scientific evaluation of risks posed by hazardous substances.”

Who Enforces California Prop 65? 

Officially, the California Attorney General’s Office is responsible for enforcing Cal Prop 65. In reality, however, the state relies on consumer protection groups, environmental NGOs, private citizens, and lawyers to carry out much of the enforcement by filing lawsuits against businesses they believe are in violation of Prop 65. In 2022, companies paid out around $26 million to settle lawsuits related to the environmental regulation. 

What Are Safe Harbor Levels? 

While most chemicals on the California Prop 65 list require a warning label at any level of exposure, about 300 have “safe harbor” levels designated by OEHHA. The agency defines safe harbor as a “level of exposure to a listed chemical that does not require a Proposition 65 warning.” Chemicals occurring at or below these designated safe harbor levels have been deemed safe for human health and the environment, and are thereby not subject to Cal Prop 65 warning requirements. 

What Were the Recent Changes to California Prop 65?

New OEHHA regulations took effect in August 2018, and include several changes to Proposition 65. The agency now requires warning labels to include the address for the OEHHA’s Proposition 65 website, the name of at least one of the chemicals on the Prop 65 list, and a new warning symbol—the yellow triangle with a black exclamation point inside. In addition, e-commerce sites like Amazon are now legally obligated to include Prop 65 warning labels for products headed to California. 

Who Does California Prop 65 Impact?

California Prop 65 impacts anyone selling products in or destined for California. Businesses selling products to Californians that contain any of the roughly 900 chemicals on the Proposition 65 list—whether the company is aware of those hazardous contents or not—are within the scope of the law. In addition, businesses and property owners responsible for workplaces, rental housing, and other physical spaces that contain significant exposures to any substances on the Prop 65 list are also legally obligated to follow the law’s warning guidelines. 

What Are the Consequences for Noncompliance?

Violating California Proposition 65 can result in financial penalties. OEHHA stipulates that such penalties “can be as high as $2,500 per violation per day.” Violators that face litigation for noncompliance may also be responsible for various legal fees. 

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