Prop 65 and Supplements: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

We need to have a chat. There’s something making its way onto a few of our products that, on first glance, is insanely scary.  

It’s a warning label. Most recently it was placed on our newly released Collagen Peptides:

WARNING: This product contains lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

I know what you’re thinking: “My beautiful hair and nails are totally worth it!” Ok, so that’s probably not what you’re thinking. You’re probably thinking more along the lines of “Neal you are a total hypocrite and deserve coal this Christmas.” 

If you were one of the first to buy the Collagen Peptides but missed the warning, I’ll just nudge you to read all labels. Even ours. If you caught it, 10 points to Gryffindor!

I am not a hypocrite, of course. In fact, I’m going to use this as an example of another way we go head and shoulders above the competition when it comes to transparency and integrity.

So let’s talk about this “State of California” - whatever that is - and the law they put into effect that causes this label to be there:  Proposition 65.

What Is Proposition 65 (Prop 65)?

Prop 65 is the common name for the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 passed in California.

The idea was to increase the transparency around the presence of naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals in products, foods, and more that could cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm. The Proposition 65 list is currently over 900 items long and includes things like herbicides & pesticides, common household products, drugs, dyes, solvents, chemically stuff, and heavy metals.

Companies are required to warn consumers if their products or services could expose them to one of the ingredients on the list.  This warning comes by way of a label, like the one on our Collagen Peptides or Prebio Complete, or even a sign hung inside the business. Laundromats, restaurants, lawn care businesses don’t really have a place for a label, so they have to have big ol’ displays stating the risk.

There’s a fact we must come to grips with: anything that is grown in or comes from our environment may have compounds in or on it that are undesirable. Heavy metals like lead, arsenic, or mercury are in the rocks, soil, grass, and trees. The concentration of these things has grown because of the oh-so-wonderful job we’ve done taking care of earth and preventing pollution.

Another fact we must deal with: people go gross for money. Many industrious capitalists have proven time and time again, that if it saves a few bucks, they’ll go for cheap over doing the right thing for fellow humans or the environment. This means synthetic and potentially harmful chemicals end up in our food and products.

So Prop 65 definitely has great intentions. Let’s explore the good, the bad, and the ugly around this piece of legislation and see if those intentions are met.

The Good Part Of Prop 65  

One of the biggest impacts I hope to have on the natural products industry is to motivate consumers to push for increased transparency. I’m a transparency advocate. I want companies to do the right thing, prove it to us, and then brag about being so great.

It’s obvious, then, that I’m a fan of what Prop 65 set out to do. We need to know this stuff. More transparency is better.  

Even with our best intentions, we will still have SOME chemical exposure to natural or synthetic compounds. The problem, of course, is many out there don’t have the best intentions. We fly blind; we don’t know what we are exposed to and when.

Many people are not aware of this exposure risk. We make assumptions about products and what they contain. “My natural product is safe and clean!” Many of us who love supplements and holistic care are greatly concerned about the role environmental hazards play in many diseases. We’re so very worried, yet we consume supplement products that have Prop 65 listed - and worse - chemicals in them.  

On the podcast, I’ll soon have two life-long autism and spectrum disorder experts speaking about the role of environmental exposure in developing the disease. We mentioned the hypocrisy of a supplement brand that had numerous formulas targeting those on the spectrum. Their products were found to have high amounts of heavy metals. They were selling heavy metal-laden products to patients who were actively trying to remove heavy metals from their bodies. The parents were not aware of this. Many still aren’t!

That’s not the only example. I’ve met with customers who were interested in supplements to remove heavy metals and “cleanse” or “detox” them. I’ve explained that no supplements really do that, and in many cases products they were using to accomplish this were third party tested to contain the very things they were trying to remove.

As Alanis Morrisette has said, "Isn't that ironic?" It’s not ironic, it’s a travesty. With Prop 65 in place, people ARE made aware.

I feel Prop 65 can increase accountability by applying pressure from consumers. Prop 65 has consumers asking important questions. “What is really in this product?”  “Will that chemical hurt me?”

One of the things Prop 65 also tries to quantify is our daily exposure risk, not just our exposure in a single product. Again, this perspective is incredibly useful to consumers who may not often think of such a thing. “Yes, I accept that it rains everywhere and I may have transient amounts of lead in my product. At any one dose I’ll be OK, but what about my daily, weekly, or annual exposure?”

Prop 65 could also create a pressure on the business side. What if businesses began asking, “Is it worth it for us to have/use these chemicals in our products?”

Prop 65 is GREAT because it attempts to bring these issues to light. To help us understand not all products are innocent.

As you’ve guessed by my not-so-subtle writing style, the law is not perfect. In fact, many feel as though the law misses the mark on many fronts.

The Bad Part Of Prop 65

There are a few major problems with Prop 65.  

First, Prop 65 makes no distinction between natural and artificial products. This can be viewed as a good thing; mercury is “natural” but not something I want much of.

The bigger one for me is the label itself.

The label is just stating that there’s a possible risk of exposure. It does not quantify the risk. Is there a lot of lead, or a little lead. So, the big question is, how much of a risk is this product?  

Some may say any risk is a big risk, but I disagree. Prop 65 lumps good companies in with the lazy, corner cutting, moldy cheeseburger supplement brands.

I would prefer it if the law required labelling to list the chemicals and the actual amounts per servings, not some vague, scary warning.

There’s a famous quote from a CEO of a magic meal replacement shake pyramid company, where he says “lead is naturally occurring, that’s why that consumer advocacy group found it in our shake blah blah blah” or however CEOs talk. Well, his product had 24x the naturally occurring level of lead! Compared to our similar, meal replacement shake, they had 50x the amount of lead found in our product.

To consumers, that guy’s product will look the same as mine in California. Both would be labelled with the warning.  Mine was vastly superior.

Just because some of these chemicals are naturally occurring, doesn’t mean there should be a lot of it in there.  We need to be able to differentiate easily.

“Safe Harbor Levels Are Too Low”

The biggest complaint about Prop 65 is how insanely low the tolerance levels are.

The threshold for exposure risk is called the “Safe Harbor” level.  If your product has over that amount, you better slap that label on. The problem? “Safe Harbor” is up to 1000 times lower than levels set by almost all other leading organizations all across the globe.

And those organizations - the FDA, EPA, WHO - are really strict meanies about those same chemicals. They set their levels based on clinical evidence to a conservative point where the chemical will have no observable effect on humans or animals. Even if we collected all the different recommendations and went by the lowest amount, Prop 65 would still be factors more strict.

That “Safe Harbor” level is so low, it is physically impossible for some foods, products, or services to not need the warning label.

Props to Daily Nutra, who in their article on the subject came up with some great comparisons. I’ll share a few of their examples around lead here:

  • Italian Salad dressing or roasted mix nuts (peanut free) - 24x the Prop 65 limit of lead
  • Dry Table wine or a baked sweet potato - 16x the Prop 65 limit of lead
  • Dried raisins, a peach, or a millennial's favorite: avocados - 8x the Prop 65 limit of lead

They point out that the Prop 65 limit on lead is 0.5 mcg per day, while the FDA says 75 mcg for adults and 6 mcg for kids is safe. Again, this isn’t a case of “The FDA is corrupt and California is awesome!” In Europe, they set their limit to 50 mcg. In Canada it is 20 mcg.  

Many products with a Prop 65 label will be well below the established safe levels of consumption and not be a major factor in your total daily exposure to harmful chemicals.

Many believe these numbers are arbitrary as they are below national and international standards set by leading health organizations. I don’t go that far, but it is odd how they vary so greatly from standards.

Because these numbers are so low, there will be a VAST number of products and services that will have to disclose the risk.  And because the risk isn’t quantified, no one really knows if one choice is better than another.  This leads us to the ugly part of Prop 65.

The Ugly Side of Prop 65

Prop 65 goes into place. You now have signs and labels on almost everything because the “Safe Harbor” levels are so aggressive, it’s impossible to fall below.  What do we think happens next?

Something something “chicken little” something “the boy who cried wolf.”  

Most believe the Prop 65 rules have desensitized people to this real problem. Many people are so used to seeing the labels and signs on benign, harmless things (like drinking water!) that they’ve become numb to them and just accept the fact the law is flawed because of its aggressive standards.

It’s shocking to us on the East Coast to see this label, because so many of our products don’t carry such a warning. It’s only now that many brands are starting to sell online to customers in California that products are donning the official Prop 65 verbiage.  

This brings us to our last point of the article, the ugliest of ugly about Prop 65: deceit.

How Brands Are Deceitful About Their Prop 65 Compliance

To sell a product in California, I have to have a product below “Safe Harbor” (nearly impossible sometimes) or label the product to have the warning.

This may make some people outside of California who aren’t already desensitized to it not choose your product. That’s bad. What to do?

Instead of complying, they comp-lie.  

Many brands have chosen to have a secret set of labels that are only used on products going to California. This prevents them from having to have a conversation with consumers about potential contaminants. It makes their product more palatable by people outside of Prop 65 areas.

How dangerous is this? It doesn’t seem to bad on first glance.

What if you knew a product you were buying had different labels for different jurisdictions? Wouldn’t you want the same clearest picture of what ingredients are?  

What if a Big Mouth Pharmacist guy who owns a supplement store has seen numerous examples of brands who have done this, and it has uncovered contaminants the brand swore were not in there?

This is why I think our actions prove our commitment to transparency, consistency, and integrity. I’ve decided to put that label on there even though so few of my products are sold in California. It would be very easy for me to not sell there or join the herd with a California-only labelling system.

As a consumer, I would want transparency, so that’s what we give.

Prop 65: Great, But Misses The Mark

We HAVE to worry about exposure to harmful chemicals. We MUST know that many supplement products have excessive amounts of potential contaminants and there is no mechanism to check before they hit the market, nor is there a way for a consumer to know if their product is clean.

It’s kind of silly we need a rule to force companies to disclose potentially harmful chemicals.  

Prop 65 has caused confusion in the marketplace because of the extremely low tolerance levels and no quantification of the risk, just a generic warning that is plastered almost everywhere because the tolerances are so low. It’s a cyclone of transparency that unfortunately circles everything downward, not upwards.

Until there are rules in place for each label to list what a product is exposing you to and how much, we’re mostly in the dark as much as we were before the rule. Since it was a ballot initiative, it’s very difficult to change legislatively. Hence the weird place we’re in now.

It’s crucial that all customers understand what Prop 65 is actually saying. We must understand the games companies can play to skirt the Prop 65 compliance in areas outside of California. Most importantly, we must only buy supplements where we know potentially harmful contaminants are being monitored for and minimized to levels as close to 0 as humanly possible. Warning sticker or not.

Just trying to keep it real,

Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth

About The Author

Neal is a pharmacist who founded Woodstock Vitamins to help raise the bar on the natural products industry.  With the help of his expert staff, he's developed the Vitality Approved quality standards to bring a new level of integrity and trust to wellness. As a result, Woodstock Vitamins has become the go-to supplement brand for those who value transparency, quality, and pure ingredients in their supplement products.

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