California knows cancer

Last week I stayed in a hotel where I noticed this sign:

This building contains chemicals, including tobacco smoke, known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

I saw similar signs elsewhere during my visit to California, though without the tobacco phrase.

The most amusing part of the sign to me was “known to the State of California.” In other words, the jury may still be out elsewhere, but the State of California knows what does and does not cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm.

Now this sign was not on the front of the hotel. You’d think that if the State of California knew that I faced certain and grievous harm from entering this hotel, they might have required the sign to be prominently displayed at the entrance. Instead, the sign was an afterthought, inconspicuously posted outside a restroom. “By the way, staying here will give you cancer and curse your offspring. Have a nice day.”

As far as the building containing tobacco smoke, you couldn’t prove it by me. I had a non-smoking room. I never saw anyone smoke in the common areas and assumed smoking was not allowed. But perhaps someone had once smoked in the hotel and therefore the public should be warned.

Related post: Smoking

12 thoughts on “California knows cancer

  1. I noticed the same kind of thing when I visited California. Almost every business is now effectively required to post those notices, at risk of lawsuits by various sovereigns (state, district or certain city attorneys) or private parties (qui tam actions or suits that are so close as to be indistinguishable from them). One of my favorites was that gas stations and parking garages often warn that the State of California knows that something there can cause cancer. Never a hint about what carcinogens might be present, the likelihood or level of exposure, or the risks of exposure at likely levels of exposure.

  2. In a sense, your tongue cheek question about California knowing something other states don’t is actually close to the mark. Proposition 65 allows the state to regulate all manner of substances deemed to pose a threat to health and the environment, which are not necessarily followed by anyone else. The list of chemicals is publicly available here: That said, as a result of reformulating stuff for California, the rest of you also benefit due to the sheer size of the California market: reformulated products are widely available or become the standard version of products.
    But the Prop 65 notices themselves are simply to fend off lawsuits, as there are firms whose sole practice revolves around suing property owners and businesses over alleged exposure to harmful chemicals.

  3. @Tim — California is known for its sunshine, which contains UV radiation, which is known to cause melanoma. Perhaps California needs a warning sign at all entry points to this effect. Plus, so far everyone who has ever lived in California has died, or is very likely to die. Coincidence? California is also saturated with dihydrogen monoxide, a potentially lethal chemical which is found in all cancerous tissues and is known to cause sudden death when inhaled.

    I hate this trend of over-the-top warnings due to fear of lawsuits, liability, high insurance premiums, or possibly genuine concern about a risk which is negligible compared to the other risks we face every day.

    If everything under the sun gets a warning label that says that consuming, using, or even standing next to it might cause problems, then the warnings are useless.

    A few months ago I purchased a sprayer attachment for my water hose. It had a big warning label that said that California knew something it it was potentially deadly. On closer inspection, the substance was lead. Given that this attachment was made of solid metal and the source county’s track record with lead, I was a little alarmed. After much research, I determined that it contained some very small brass parts. Brass is not normally made with lead to my knowledge, but evidently this brass had some lead. Probably it was detected in the brass at parts-per-billion, and the amount of lead likely to leech out as the water rushes past it would make a homeopath blush. But who knows? The warning label just said it contains lead, as does just about everything on the planet.

    Equally irritating are useless warnings supposedly to prevent damage to items, such as “Dry clean only” on perfectly washable clothes. You say our shirt came apart in a week? Did you wash it? Sorry, we warned you.

    Pretty soon everything will come with a warning that even looking at it might kill your or permanently damage it. That way when anything happens, the manufacturer can point to the warning label.

  4. Smoking hasn’t been allowed in public building in California for ages. As for the sign, it might not have been referring to tobacco. More or less, if anything you might be exposed to could, at any level of exposure, cause cancer, then the sign will be there, even if the level of exposure could never be great enough to be a risk. The overall effect is that those signs do nothing to help you be aware of actual threats to your health, because you either ignore the signs or develop agoraphobia.

    Now, if a building has a sign warning that it’s a risk during an earthquake, that’s worth noting.

  5. Other signs I find interesting:
    Evacuation maps posted next to the door.

    “In case of fire take the stairs.” posted next to the lobby floor elevator – in sight of the building entrance. It should say: “In case of fire go over to the map next to the door and figure out how to get out.”

  6. Paracelsus was a genius.

    The problem with a warning sign about a building being a risk during an earthquake is that is is true of all buildings. Just think of the look on a liability insurer’s face when he or she sees a sign proclaiming that the building owned by their client is not a risk during an earthquake. Give them time; you’ll see signs on every building that explain that there are inherent risks in occupying a building, including but not limited to consequential, incidental, detrimental, or tempermental damages due to falling building pieces during an earthquake, and that by walking through the door you freely accept those risks and absolve the owner of all liability in consideration for and of access to the building.

    Long ago I formulated the Universal Microwave Directions: “Heat until hot”.

    Now I see that we need a Universal Warning Sign: “Bad stuff could happen!”

  7. The Paracelsus was just what I was thinking of. The cancer signs don’t make that information clear, and thus are as useful to a consumer as no signs at all would be.

    As for the earthquake warnings, they are more restricted; the sign is required if the building is not yet retrofitted to the current standards. There’s a grace period when the new standards are established, and sometimes building owners delay. In the 2003 San Simeon quake, such a delay killed two people (also, their foolishly running outside, but it still would have been nice to know that that building was unsafe). That being my hometown, I was able to see quite clearly that adherence to the building codes is significant: it meant the difference between cosmetic and major structural damage.

  8. When I was pregnant with my first child, I noticed that many products have similar warnings on them for causing birth defects. My yoga mat, for example, may cause birth defects–but only in California.

  9. My favorite warning is inside elevators in California.
    It reads (in all capital letters):

    “Should the elevator doors fail to open, do not become alarmed.
    There is little danger of running out of air or of this elevator dropping uncontrollably. Please use button marked ‘Alarm’ or telephone (if furnished) to summon aid. Elevator companies are on call 24 hours a day for emergency service.”

    The interesting points:

    1. There is a non-zero probability of running out of air if the doors don’t open.
    2. There is a non-zero probability that the elevator will fall.
    3. The elevator might not have a phone.

    On the other hand, all of these things have been true for the entire history of elevators in buildings.

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