(Virtually) Live from San Francisco ... Kelley Green Law Blog was delighted again to attend last week's terrific Prop 65 Clearinghouse 2023 Conference, the largest annual gathering of the movers and shakers in the world of California's "Proposition 65," including state regulators and legislators, plaintiff enforcers, defense and corporate counsel, tox and risk assessment consultants, product manufacturers, trade associations, and environmental and public health NGOs. With over 200 attendees, the conference's popularity reflects the broad reach of Prop 65, which affects any business that sells or has a product that is sold in California ... in short, most consumer product manufacturers across the globe (particularly with the explosion of internet sales during the pandemic). As I have remarked in prior commentaries (2018, 2020, and 2021), the conference is valuable not only to gain insights into the latest trends, current developments, and future direction of the program, but also as a helpful reminder, for me certainly, of the role and motivations of the other stakeholders in the Prop 65 universe.
Following are some of those "insights," observations and other thoughts from the front lines of Prop 65.
This year, my attention turned heavily to the root causes of the widespread phenomenon known as "over-warning" – i.e., the practice of many businesses to provide a warning for a product out of an abundance of caution, even if one may not technically be necessary. As a result of over-warning, the marketplace (most noticeably in California but increasingly elsewhere as well) is saturated with warnings. Warnings appear on items throughout grocery store aisles, in parking garages and hotels, on restaurant menus, and all over items in "big box" stores. Naturally, consumers start to filter out and ignore such warnings as they become "white noise" in the background. Perhaps more importantly, the sea of unnecessary warnings drowns out the relatively small percentage of warnings that are appropriate and serve meaningful public health ends.
"Including the word 'California' on a Prop 65 warning is preferred [by businesses] because ... Crazy California!"
My thoughts were struck by the title of one of the slides in the introductory "101" session of the conference: "Our Shared Goal: Public Health." Great concept, truly, and hard to disagree with. But the statement presents a logical follow up question: Is Prop 65 the best way to achieve that goal of improved public health? I think the answer clearly is no. At minimum, Prop 65 provides incentives that only serve to sow confusion - and perhaps even nonchalance - about what is and is not safe. For example, it is not within a company's expertise or ability to determine appropriate safe levels or to parse the complexities and ambiguities of toxicological data. And when the penalty is potentially so high - when even if you do a gold-plated risk assessment to demonstrate no warning is needed - you can still lose your case because of the uncertainties of the legal process (the burden of proof is on the business to prove any exposure was "safe," plaintiffs can muddy the waters with their own experts and nitpick an assessment to raise doubts, and it is hard to predict how a given judge will rule). In short, the most rational option for a business often is to place a warning on your product, instead of taking on the task of making a "public health" determination on your own. Such determinations are not the province of individuals or companies and are best made by, well, the public through the application of publicly agreed upon policies (i.e., a regulatory process).
When the penalty that may be imposed – often by a private plaintiff group that is motivated by fee collection – is based on a moving or unknowable standard (an unknown "safe" level), Prop 65's ask of a business is practically impossible. In such situations, of course, it makes sense to be overly cautious and put a warning on your product.
So, what is the solution? One thing that would greatly improve the system: California regulators (OEHHA) should establish safe harbor levels for all listed chemicals at the time of listing. Even if such a value may be an initial conservative estimate, having an approved "safe harbor" on the books for every chemical will provide some assurance to companies and minimize one of the most contentious and burdensome elements of the Prop 65 system. Providing such a default "safe harbor" value for every chemical would be one huge step towards minimizing "over-warning."
Interestingly, a conference panel on the "over-warning" problem directly addressed this idea, with at least one panelist (a plaintiff attorney) noting that the lack of "safe harbor" levels for all chemicals and routes of exposure was "not a big issue." While I respectfully disagree, there certainly are other, perhaps more effective, ideas to consider to minimize the proliferation of unnecessary warnings. From my perspective as defense counsel, the best idea I heard from the panel was to resurrect an idea from legislation proposed in 2015 that would provide a defense if a business had performed a prior exposure assessment for the product that indicated no warning was needed. While implementation would be tricky, as there could be arguments over whether such a risk assessment was consistent with established criteria, the availability of such a defense would serve the public health goals of Prop 65. Companies would be encouraged to look more seriously at the chemicals in their products and the potential for exposure, and minimize "over-warning" by providing more assurance that a determination that a warning is not needed would not be punished by a private enforcer that knows the burden of proof in court is on the company.
Without shifting the dynamics of the Prop 65 enforcement system – which greatly favor private plaintiffs and practically necessitate over-warning – there will be no reason for businesses to stop providing overly precautionary and unnecessary warnings.
Thanks for joining us at the conference and we hope to be broadcasting live and in person next year from the City by the Bay! As always, for the latest on Prop 65 stay tuned to Kelley Green Law Blog.
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