In California, it seems you're never far from a reminder about cancer.
You can't park a car indoors in the Golden State without seeing a warning about the ways your cancer risk might spike.
Earlier this year, a California judge ordered that all coffee sellers in the state must post warnings about the potentially cancer-causing effects of a chemical in coffee called acrylamide. But the ruling is being challenged by the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment because there's no solid scientific evidence that coffee can cause cancer.
Acrylamide occurs naturally in small quantities when coffee beans — and many other plant-derived foods — are roasted. And research suggests the health benefits of drinking coffee vastly outweigh the risks.
California's cancer-warning policy comes from a 1986 state law called Proposition 65, enacted to protect California's drinking-water supply from toxic and potentially cancer-causing chemicals. It also mandates the state keep a master list of all chemicals known to be toxins and requires manufacturers and businesses to warn people about these chemicals if they're present in products or buildings, even in extremely small doses.
There are more than 1,000 chemicals on California's warnings list, which grows every year. Some chemicals on it have been proven to cause cancer, but not all. A chemical needs to have only a one-in-100,000 chance of upping your risk for cancer to merit a written warning to consumers.
"We now have so many warnings unrelated to the actual health risk posed to consumers that most people just ignore them," Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon said in a release this month blasting the new coffee warnings, adding: "When we have mandatory cancer warnings on a cup of coffee, something has gone seriously wrong with the process."
The way cancer develops in the body is extremely complex, so a person's cancer risk isn't just about what they put in their mouth, car, and lungs — it has a lot to do with our genes and family history too.
For that and other reasons, many Californians and cancer experts lament that the warnings aren't all that helpful as written.
The American Cancer Society says on its website: "The Prop 65 labels only tell you that a product has something in it that might cause cancer or affect reproduction. They don't say what the substance is, where it is in the product, how you might be exposed to it, what the level of risk is, or how to reduce your exposure."