Coffee and Proposition 65: Do You Take Cream and Cancer?

On April Fool’s day in 2013, two Florida disc jockeys faced felony charges after they pranked listeners by joking that “dihydrogen monoxide” was coming out of their taps. Failing to recognize that dihydrogen monoxide is the chemical formula for water (H2O), scores of Florida County residents began frantically calling the Lee County Water Utility to report the danger, forcing utility officials to issue a county-wide statement calming the fears of local Floridians. The ensuing panic that followed highlighted two things: society’s poor grasp of chemistry 101 and, more important to this article, the general misconception that all chemicals are inherently dangerous, no matter the chemical and the dose or exposure levels.

Take the recent decision by California Superior Court Judge, Elihu Berle, who held that coffee was carcinogenic because the chemical acrylamide is present upon roasting of the beans. Acrylamide is a Proposition 65 listed chemical because cancer studies dating back to 1980s found that high doses of acrylamide increased the rates of thyroid and testicular tumors in lab rats. But here’s the thing- the doses fed to rodents in these studies were extremely high — the equivalent of a 150-pound person drinking 11,000 to 136,500 eight-ounce cups of coffee per day. That is a LOT of coffee. And frankly, if you are drinking that much coffee you have other problems.

The reality is, consumers ignored the ruling. Coffee is an everyday staple for millions of people. In addition to its benefits for improving cognitive functions, coffee when ingested in moderation has been shown in numerous studies to have health benefits, including protecting against Parkinson’s disease, Type 2 Diabetes and liver disease, including liver cancer.

It is no wonder that the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), the state agency responsible for administering the law, proposed a new regulation (Proposed Regulation) on June 15, 2018 clarifying that cancer warnings are not required for coffee under Proposition 65. The Proposed Regulation states that drinking coffee does not pose a significant cancer risk, despite the presence of chemicals created during the roasting and brewing process that are listed under Proposition 65 as known carcinogens. In a review of more than 1,000 studies, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that there is “inadequate evidence” that drinking coffee causes cancer.

In the face of OEHHA’s Proposed Regulation, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT), the plaintiff in CERT v. Starbucks Corp., filed a brief on June 20, 2018, arguing that the Proposed Regulation is unlawful because it violates Proposition 65. Should CERT win on this issue, it may be a pyrrhic victory. As more and more everyday products like coffee become entangled in California’s “right-to-know” law, warning labels under Proposition 65 will become more and more meaningless to everyday Californians.

Adam Regele, Policy Advocate