Proposition 65: Protecting Californians from Toxic Chemicals

In 1986, California voters overwhelmingly approved an innovative law that set new standards for protecting people from toxic chemicals. The law is called the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, but most people refer to it by its ballot measure number, Prop 65. 

Read CEH’s “State Law, National Change” report

The law sets rules for protecting drinking water in California from pollution by cancer-causing chemicals or chemicals that cause reproductive health problems. The law also calls on businesses to notify Californians when they would be exposed to such harmful chemicals in other ways, including in the air or in consumer products. The basic concept of this part of the law is simple: if businesses are required to warn consumers about harmful chemicals before they buy products, consumers can act to protect themselves and their families.

Much of the success of the law has taken place behind the scenes. In untold numbers of industries, companies choose to change the way they make products – they choose to preemptively remove harmful chemicals – in order to avoid putting warning labels on their products.

CEH’s Prop 65 successes include:

  • A 2019 peer-reviewed study found CEH litigation actions resulted in dramatic reductions in the lead content of candy and purses in California, and nationwide. The study is only the second quantitative analysis conducted to determine whether litigation to require warnings on hazardous products in California results in the increased availability of safer ones. The other, a 2010 CEH report also found Prop 65 litigation efforts and corresponding legislation led to the near elimination of lead in jewelry.
  • Marvin Engineering is just one of many California companies that have reduced the use of perchloroethylene as a result of Prop 65. Perchloroethylene released into California air declined from almost 5 million pounds per year in 1988 to less than 90,000 pounds per year in 2011.
  • For decades, the caramel coloring used to give Coke and Pepsi their deep brown color was contaminated with a cancer-causing chemical, 4-methylimidazole. Prop 65 was the catalyst that led Coke and Pepsi to make their products safer for Californians, and ultimately for all Americans.
  • In 2007, CEH found lead-containing bibs at Walmart and Babies R Us. We used Prop 65 to get legal agreements with both companies to eliminate hazardous lead. these bibs helped spur the passage of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 and set strict standards nationwide for lead in children’s products. We tested similar bibs in 2013 and found no detectable lead.·
  •  A report published by CEH in the peer reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology demonstrated an industry-wide change in jewelry due to Prop 65. Prior to Prop 65 litigation about lead in jewelry,s, one study showed that as much as 50% of jewelry purchased in California contained high levels of lead. Following the Prop 65 agreements on lead content, fewer than 5% of more than 1,500 pieces of jewelry tested had lead problems.
  • CEH’s Prop  65 legal agreements set strict limits on the amount of cadmium in children’s jewelry. The limit was added to California’s metal-containing jewelry law while the litigation was in progress.
  • Through Prop 65 litigation with more than 20 companies CEH established strict standards for lead in lunchboxes. This work and the work with toys and bibs discussed earlier helped to pass a federal law that limited lead content of all children’s products. In 2015, CEH and leading foam manufacturer Carpenter reached a legal agreement requiring the company to end its use of chlorinated Tris and other hazardous flame retardants in their foam products.
  • Because of Prop 65 legal work shampoos no longer contain cancer-causing chemical Cocamide DEA. One example is Grisi, a discount shampoo company based in Mexico. The company markets its products to Latino customers at stores like K-Mart. Because of our legal work, those shampoos no longer contain Cocamide DEA.


Prop 65 has effectively reduced our exposure to chemicals that cause cancer or reproductive problems like birth defects and infertility. Moreover, the law’s success has not imposed undue burdens on business. To the contrary, businesses making safer, more environmentally friendly products are now poised to take advantage of the global demand for such healthier items.

The scope of toxic chemicals reduced or eliminated by Prop 65’s influence has been wide –from those found in toys and candy to those found in large industrial facilities. It is fair to say that California, and the nation, are cleaner and healthier places than they were before the passage of the law.