JONES: California’s wacky labels

Eating a rubber worm or a fish hook is not a proper diet

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What you’d expect to find on a box of matches are fire warnings. Instead, the only warning on the most popular brand of matches sold in America has to do with a side-effect of lighting a match that has never injured anyone.

That warning is one of five finalists in the annual Wacky Warning Labels Contest announced earlier this month. For the first time in the 16 years of our contest, three of the hilarious warning labels were prompted by manufacturers’ fears that they would be sued under a controversial California law. That law, known as Proposition 65, has led to so many ridiculous lawsuits against product makers and store owners that California lawmakers have pledged to fix the law. Here’s why.

One of the Proposition 65-fueled warning labels was found on a common indoor extension cord in Michigan. It’s used safely in millions of homes and could have been found in any state. Manufacturers of popular consumer products usually put one warning on their product that will be used in all states, so the California-mandated warning appears everywhere. The warning says: “Wash hands after using.” Really now, do you wash your hands after plugging in an extension cord?

Another Prop 65 warning was found on a package of rubber worms used for fishing. That warning label, found in Tennessee, says: “Not for human consumption.” At least that one will give fishermen something interesting to talk about while they wait for a nibble.

The Prop 65 warning on that aforementioned box of matches found in New York cautions about a host of side effects of striking the match — but not about fire. The label says: “Combustion of this manufactured product results in the emissions of carbon monoxide, soot and other combustion byproducts, which are known by the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm.”

If those warnings vanished forever, it would be practically impossible to show an impact on consumer safety. However, the labels are mandatory. An army of personal-injury lawyers are filing Prop 65 lawsuits right now, and the vast majority of the products in question pose absolutely no risk to consumers. Just ask Chicago-area inventor Chuck Firth.

Mr. Firth is a cat lover with a background in consumer software who came up with a clever tool for cleaning cat litter. He invented an easy-to-use, environmentally friendly scooper that caught the attention of the nation’s largest pet stores. His “DuraScoops” became so popular that people began buying them for other purposes. A company supplying equipment for the massive Gulf of Mexico oil-spill cleanup effort bought 4,000 of them to help scoop tar balls off beaches.

After years on the market, no injuries have been reported. However, that didn’t stop a personal-injury lawyer from suing the stores that sell them. He sued them simply for failing to put a Prop 65 warning on the scoops.

Proposition 65 was approved by voters in 1986 to protect consumers from exposure to chemicals that the state of California has said cause cancer or birth defects. No other state has done this, and the chemicals are found in thousands of consumer products, including shower curtains, luggage, Halloween costumes, coffee, cars and thousands of other things. Nevertheless, product makers are required to advise California consumers of the presence of the chemicals.

In Mr. Firth’s case, he is now facing the real possibility that the small company he financed with home-equity loans will be forced out of business. even though there are no injuries claimed by use of his product. Prop 65 lawsuits have become an industry unto themselves.

Many experts think the excess of Prop 65 warnings has made consumers “numb” to warnings and, therefore, the warnings don’t serve a useful purpose. It has led to such a glut of common-sense warnings that even a simple fishing lure now warns: “Harmful if swallowed.” That label was actually discovered by the Center for America in our Wacky Warning Labels Contest a few years ago.

There is no evidence that fish can read that label, but the rest of us should be able to read the writing on the wall. The overabundance of labels and lawsuits means we’ll need something larger than a DuraScoop to clean up this costly and dangerous mess.

Bob Dorigo Jones is senior fellow at the Center for America.

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