the state of california vs. coffee

A California law mandating disclosure of any potentially cancer-causing chemicals is starting to cross the line from useful advice into eye-rolling alarmism.

generic coffee cup

In a surprising ruling this past March, LA County Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle concluded that coffee makers must warn their customers that the product they’re buying contains a chemical called acrylamide, which is suspected to cause cancer. Under a California law, products which contain a certain amount of a known or suspected carcinogen must have a prominent warning so consumers can, theoretically, take reasonable precautions when deciding whether to buy them or not. And although the decision was met with a degree of mockery and quickly forgotten, it illustrates the problem with regulating products based on the precautionary principle.

While the typical summary of this case was “wacky California judge thinks coffee gives you cancer,” his hands were more or less tied by Proposition 65, or the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act. Yes, it’s perfectly understandable that the state of California would want to warn its residents about potential health risks when they’re shopping, but far too many health activists seem content to take a list of chemicals being tracked by IARC, the international cancer study group, and start putting up danger signs warning people about the carcinogenic horrors they’re facing. This is, in effect, the logic behind the law in question, but the end result of this law and its application glosses over the very complex science involved in determining what is, and isn’t a carcinogen.

You see, cancer is often referred to as a single disease but it’s actually a very complex family of diseases typically, but not always, characterized by malicious, runaway cell growth the body’s immune system can’t see as malignant. (This is also, admittedly, an oversimplification.) It can also occur completely on its own and be inherited. It’s been found in dinosaurs and mummies, and gets its name from ancient Greek doctors fascinated by bizarre “crab-like” tumors it created, in contrast to pseudoscientific claims by alternative medicine advocates that cancers are an invention of the modern industrial age. In fact, it appears to have existed since the dawn of multicellular life on Earth, which poses some fascinating questions about evolution.

Different cancers can be caused by different things like mutations, heredity, exposure to certain toxins, or a combination of these triggers, and require different treatments to which cancerous cells may adapt and come back as a disease that’s now more aggressive and harder to treat, or which can put the patient into remission for decades. The sheer, mind-numbing complexity and variety of mechanisms involved means we may never know all the things that cause cancer and cures for all cancers might be impossible.

This is one of the reasons why scientists are constantly trying to find correlations between our environments and incidences of cancer, even if those leads seldom result in actionable causes or prevention mechanisms. The idea is to build at least something that allows us to understand cancers even a little better. With that it mind, it’s little wonder that the list of possible carcinogens used for Proposition 65 is at some 850 chemicals and growing. And it’s the size of that list and how it was derived that become problematic for crafting useful warnings.

Part of the problem is relying on bureaucratic curators of scientific research like the IARC to update the list of carcinogens. While they are all credible sources of peer reviewed studies, how their research is classified and communicated can often be extremely confusing and misleading, making it seem as if bacon is as much of a carcinogen as cigarette tar, even though what they actually mean is that both assertions have high quality studies behind them. If that doesn’t clear things up for you, don’t worry, even cancer researchers get frustrated with what IRAC actually means when it says that something is a carcinogen because they’re grading the quality of the science rather than evaluating the actual risks of something causing cancer.

To a person who understandably doesn’t have the time or desire to read hundreds of words trying to explain the arcane classification processes at work, it seems that either a) everything causes cancer and the warnings are meaningless, or b) the warnings are confusing, based on very preliminary science, and are well-meaning overreach that can be safely ignored. Neither of these takeaways are good for public health and triggered arguments about Proposition 65’s real world effects as well as plenty of jokes among Californians.

The case of the potentially carcinogenic coffee is actually a perfect example of this because the suit was brought by a chemophobic group and the science on the amounts of acrylamide, a byproduct of the roasting process, that can cause cancer in humans are still a subject of much debate. So far, it’s been found to cause cancer in lab rodents, which is enough for the IARC to classify it as a possible carcinogen, but lab rodents are highly prone to developing cancer anyway, so these results are hardly definitive when applied to humans.

Even if it is found to be carcinogenic, the risks may be negligible over a typical lifetime, yet Californians will be warned that their coffee might kill them, even though that’s statistically highly unlikely. And the real concern here is that it may make them a lot less inclined to follow new warnings, even if they’re backed by much stronger science and pose far more danger. They’ll just have too many suspected and real carcinogens to keep track of and research for those warnings to continue making any real impact. And that’s the real danger, alerts about potent cancer causing chemicals based on thoroughly replicated science being ignored or dismissed because “they put those warnings on everything nowadays, even coffee.”

This is why the CDC’s warnings about chemicals and products known to cause cancer are far more conservative and definitive. They don’t want warnings about smoking, overexposure to the sun, and asbestos to be lost in the steady drone of dire news the public is now conditioned to tune out because it’s unfair to coddle people like an overprotective parent or assume they have the training to analyze the absolute vs. probable risk of exposure to more than 850 substances in their daily lives before leaving their homes, also likely filled with trace amounts of many of those chemicals.

# health // cancer / iarc / law

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