Signs of the times in California

A federal judge has stopped the state from requiring farmers, companies and others to post signs that inaccurately characterize glyphosate as a carcinogen.

Published on March 8, 2018 10:19AM

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Since its passage in 1986, California Proposition 65 has been a prime example of why voter-passed initiatives are, more often than not, half-baked, useless and misdirected. Instead of building public confidence in government, they only make government look silly and inept.

Under Prop 65, companies are required to post a sign notifying the public of the presence of cancer-causing substances.

The problem arises from the state’s interpretation of that requirement. Included are Disney Downtown, the shopping and dining area of Disneyland in Anaheim. Posted there is a sign that dutifully notifies the public of the existence of cancer-causing substances. What they might be, or where, is not spelled out, making the sign approximately worthless.

Most people ignore the sign, based on its bizarre nature, but the ones who read it just laugh and say something like, “Well, that’s California for you.”

Or, more accurately, “That’s another half-baked initiative for you.”

While most people would agree with the public’s “right to know” — Prop 65’s supposed purpose — they would also agree that the facts associated with such warnings ought to be meaningful, pertinent and, most important of all, accurate.

That was among the issues argued recently in federal court, where a group of agricultural companies and organizations was asking U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb to inject a modicum of sanity into the state’s proposal to label the chemical glyphosate as a carcinogen.

Glyphosate, best known by the trade name Roundup, has been widely used during the past 40 years to kill weeds. Most recently, it has been used in conjunction with a handful of “Roundup Ready” crops that are resistant to it. This allows farmers to kill weeds in their fields without killing crops.

The companies and organizations had asked the judge to stop the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment from requiring private companies to post signs stating that glyphosate causes cancer. They argued that requiring them to do that would violate the Constitution’s First Amendment. As in, the state government cannot require someone to say something that’s false.

The state had declared glyphosate as a carcinogenic last year based on its listing as a “probable” carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The judge noted that there’s a considerable gap between the “probable” in the IARC’s listing and the state’s determination that it is known to cause cancer.

“...A reasonable consumer would not understand that a substance is ‘known to cause cancer’ where only one health organization had found that the substance in question causes cancer and virtually all other government agencies and health organizations that have reviewed studies on the chemical had found there was no evidence that it caused cancer,” the judge wrote. “Under these facts, the message that glyphosate is known to cause cancer is misleading at best.”

The judge points out that, as recently as 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency had determined “that there was no or insufficient evidence that glyphosate causes cancer” and that “...given the heavy weight of evidence in the record that glyphosate is not in fact known to cause cancer, the required warning is factually inaccurate and controversial.”

In the end, the judge stopped the state from requiring farmers, companies and others to post signs about glyphosate.

That’s only fair, since the facts — and four decades of experience — appear to back the arguments that glyphosate is not a carcinogen.

Now, if the judge could only do something about those Disneyland signs.


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