WARNING: This Podcast Contains Chemicals Known to the State of California to Cause Cancer or Other Reproductive Harm

Roman Mars: 99% Invisible is brought to you by the Lexus GX and Sirius XM. As a 99PI listener, we know that you delight in exploring regional architecture wherever you go. If you’re looking for an adventure SUV that promises both luxury and capability, the new Lexus GX is just the vehicle you’ve been looking for. Enabled with SiriusXM, the 2024 GX comes equipped with a rich array of content you can enjoy on your next road trip. In true 99PI fashion, get in a GX today, and experience how great design marries form and function. To learn more about the GX and SiriusXM and Lexus vehicles, visit lexus.com/gx and siriusxm.com/lexustrial. The all-new Lexus GX–live up to it.

Realtor: Sergeant and Mrs. Smith, you are going to love this house. 

Sergeant Smith: Is that a tub in the kitchen? 

USAA: There’s no field manual for finding the right home. But when you do, USAA Homeowners Insurance can help protect it the right way. Restrictions apply. 

Ashley: Luxury is meant to be livable. Discover the new leather collection at Ashley with premium quality leather sofas, recliners, and more all built to last. No matter how many spills, scuffs, or pet related mishaps come its way, the leather collection at Ashley is made with the durability you need for the whole family. Shop the new leather collection at Ashley and find chairs starting at $499.99 and sofas at $599.99. Ashley–for the love of home. 

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Around the summer of 2023, 99PI producer Vivian Le decided her life was in need of an upgrade. 

Vivian Le: Oh, God, yes. 

Roman Mars: That’s Vivian. 

Vivian Le: My husband and I were dying to move into a new apartment. We’ve jumped around a lot from place to place. And our previous residences included a rundown dingbat, a basement studio with questionable structural integrity, and my mom’s house. So, we were ready to live luxuriously. And after a long Zillow search, we ended up finding a bougie apartment building in a walkable neighborhood of Los Angeles with a pool, a gym, and a god tier amenity: central AC. 

Roman Mars: Welcome to the good life, Viv.

Vivian Le: Thank you. We were very excited. But on moving day, as I was schlepping boxes through the lobby doors, I spotted something that slipped my attention during the initial walkthrough. Stuck to the entrance of my beautiful, new apartment building was an ominous looking sign. It read, “Warning: entering this area can expose you to chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm, including benzene, a chemical used in urinal cleaners, and Toluene, a chemical used in common household cleaning products. For more information, go to www.p65warnings.ca.gov. 

Roman Mars: This was a Proposition 65 warning. You can find these labels on all sorts of products manufactured in or distributed to the state of California. They generally all have similar language with buzzwords starting with “warning” and quickly followed by “chemical,” “cancer,” and “birth defects.” For people who live outside the state of California, a label like this might look pretty terrifying. Maybe you’ve at one point ordered bedroom furniture manufactured in San Diego and found yourself Googling, “Can I get cancer from a lampshade?”

Vivian Le: But for those of us who do live here, there are few things more common or more Californian than a Proposition 65 warning label. As a California lifer, I’ve seen them on everything from power tools to leather jackets to potato chips to dietary supplements. 

Roman Mars: Dishware, gas pumps, coffee tables, parking garages…

Vivian Le: I’ve seen these labels on so many different things that by the time I saw it on the five-story, 169-unit apartment building that I was moving into, I didn’t panic or move apartment buildings or even question what Toluene is. I just carried on with my day like I always do whenever I see these labels on anything, which made me wonder what good these warnings are even doing if people like me are just ignoring them. 

Roman Mars: Well, kind of a lot because it turns out these ugly, clunky warning labels are somehow the most elegant solution we’ve got for tackling an even uglier, clunkier environmental problem. 

Vivian Le: To trace the origin of these poorly designed warnings, you need to talk to this man. 

David Roe: We may be getting somewhere–

Vivian Le: Who, ironically, was interrupted by a poorly designed warning during our interview. 

David Roe: “Everyone remain calm,” it says. 

Vivian Le: This man, by the way, is David Roe. 

David Roe: For 25 years, I was a senior lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund. And in 1985, I wrote a ballot Proposition called Proposition 65, for the 1986 ballot. 

Vivian Le: The mid ’80s was probably a wild time to be an environmental lawyer because everything was poison. 

Roman Mars: At the time, Los Angeles was averaging a total of 273 hazardous air quality days a year. There have been nearly 7,000 accidents involving toxic chemicals, which killed over 135 people in the past five years alone. The California State Legislature declared childhood lead exposure the most significant environmental health problem in the state. And nearly half of Californians were afraid to drink their tap water. 

ABC News: It’s the giver of life to the Earth. But this most elemental offering of nature to man now carries a threat. There are people drinking water that’s contaminated, and they don’t know that the water is contaminated. 

Vivian Le: The United States does not have a good record when it comes to keeping people safe from toxic chemicals. Federal agencies like the FDA and the EPA were created to protect human health and the environment. But even in 1985, there were still huge gaps between the intent of laws regulating toxic chemicals and impact. 

David Roe: My favorite example was the toxic section of the Clean Air Act. 

Vivian Le: The Clean Air Act was originally passed in 1963 and is enforced by the EPA. At the time, it was a landmark environmental law that aimed to set limits on certain pollutants in the air. David said it was great in theory, but in execution not much was actually getting done. 

David Roe: The legislation said, “Here are 189 chemicals. Those are the ones we want you to figure out how much is too much for. And then go around and start banning them for things beyond how much is too much.” Well, in 20 years they had managed to set those limits for six chemicals out of 189. 

Vivian Le: Chemical companies and lobbyists resisted federal regulation because they felt it was costly and a burden on business to change their behavior. David wanted to actually make it in their best interest to change their behavior. And if it couldn’t happen on the federal level, then it would happen on the state level. 

Roman Mars: And David was about to get the opportunity to do just that. 

Vivian Le: The following year, in 1986, there was going to be a big election for the governor of California. The incumbent Republican governor had a really bad record on toxic chemical cleanup. And the Democratic challenger was supported by a number of environmentally progressive groups like the Sierra Club and the Campaign for Economic Democracy. Leaders from these groups believed that they could sway more left leaning voters to come out to the polls and vote for their Democratic candidate if they could write a ballot initiative addressing toxic chemicals and get it on the 1986 ballot. 

David Roe: So, they needed somebody to write it. And I was sort of the only guy left in the room. So, I essentially got to write the whole thing myself. 

Vivian Le: But passing a law via ballot initiative came with its own set of challenges. 

David Roe: Writing a ballot initiative is different from writing a law in a legislature. It has to pass. It has to work once it passes, but it also has to pass, which means it has to be pretty simple to explain. And it has to be pretty good at fending off tricky negative arguments. 

Vivian Le: In order to appeal to voters. This initiative would have to walk a very fine line. It needed to have a strong environmental message but also be simple to execute. It needed to be tough on toxic chemicals but not so tough that it would be a burden on California businesses. 

Roman Mars: Which is how David came up with the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, aka Proposition 65. According to the core language of the law, Prop 65 would do something new and innovative and honestly… kind of wimpy. 

David Roe: What it said was, “If you know you’re exposing me, new business–if you know you’re exposing me to a chemical that you know causes cancer–just tell me. We’re not putting anybody out of business. But if you’re going to do that, just tell me.”

Vivian Le: The law wouldn’t ban toxic chemicals. It wouldn’t limit exposure to toxic chemicals. It wouldn’t even punish businesses for adding dangerous chemicals to their products or to the water system. It just said that in the state of California, if a product contained a chemical that caused cancer or birth defects, there had to be a, quote, “clear and reasonable warning.”

Roman Mars: The law would broadly be applied to all products in California, rather than trying to target individual chemicals. It also applied to businesses who distribute products into California from anywhere outside of the state. The idea was that no sane company would want a brand itself with a scarlet warning label saying that they were intentionally poisoning you. So, this law would nudge companies towards the magic word: reformulation. 

Vivian Le: Reformulation! If a company knew that it was making something with a dangerous ingredient, it would reformulate to leave out that ingredient. And if it didn’t, the product would need a warning. 

David Roe: And the ideal number of warnings is zero. 

Roman Mars: The Proposition 65 campaign began in earnest in 1986. And to be honest, not even the people running the campaign had much hope of the law passing.

Tom Epstein: The messaging… I mean, we used it as our tagline. “Get tough on toxics,” which I think in the end probably wasn’t the best tagline. 

Vivian Le: This is Tom Epstein, the campaign manager for Prop 65. He says the initiative came up against some pretty looming odds. The incumbent governor came out in opposition to the law, along with oil and chemical companies and a number of businesses and agricultural groups. And along with that opposition came a lot of money supporting the No on 65 campaign. 

Tom Epstein: We only had about $1 million, and the opponents spent almost 5 million. 

Roman Mars: But Prop 65 did have a couple things going for it. One, a pretty reasonable environmental message. And two? 

Jane Fonda: Let’s get ready. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Tummies are in. Hips tucked under 

Roman Mars: Jane Fonda. 

Jane Fonda: Inhale and exhale. Again. Lift and exhale. 

Vivian Le: Actress and activist Jane Fonda and her husband at the time, State Assemblyman Tom Hayden, were co-founders of the Campaign for Economic Democracy. Fonda and Hayden were both big supporters of the Democratic candidate running for governor and very involved with the Prop 65 campaign. 

Roman Mars: Fonda used her celebrity pool to wrangle a group of famous people to hit the campaign trail to raise awareness and funds for Prop 65. 

Tom Epstein: It was really fun. It had a lot of that really young kind of Brat Pack stars–but also older friends of Jane. 

David Roe: About 40 Hollywood people–some very famous and some famous only if you watch TV series–but quite a collection of people. 

Vivian Le: Whoopi Goldberg, Ed Begley Jr., Rob Lowe, and Chevy Chase all got behind the initiative. Here’s Michael J. Fox outside of a Yes on Proposition 65 party at MGM Studios. 

Michael J. Fox Why I’m interested in it, I think, is why anybody would be interested in it. It’s essentially saying those responsible for jumping toxins, dumping poisons, in areas and situations where it contaminates our drinking water have to live up to it, admit it, tell us what the dumping–how it’s getting to us. And I think that that’s a real easy thing to support for me. 

Vivian Le: Jane Fonda, unfortunately, was not available for an interview for this story. The good news is, I did manage to track down a clip of her speaking at a Yes on 65 event. The bad news is it’s only about three seconds long and she’s shouting what sounds like the word jellybean. 

Jane Fonda: Jellybean! 

Vivian Le: I don’t know. I’m sorry. 

Roman Mars: The star-studded group crammed into a fleet of buses which they called the Clean Water Caravan, and embarked on a three-day, nine-city tour up and down California. As a member of the campaign, David Roe got to travel with the celebrity caravan. 

David Roe: At one point, we were driving in the Central Valley, and were pulled over by a couple of motorcycle cops. 

Vivian Le: According to the LA times, Rob Lowe and Daphne Zuniga popped open the emergency latch at the top of the Clean Water bus and were hanging out the roof at 60mph. 

David Roe: And so, the cop stops the lead bus and pulls them over. And the bus driver is signaled to get out. So, the bus driver comes out to talk to the motorcycle cop. And out comes Jane Fonda and Chevy Chase and Morgan Fairchild and all these people. And the cop just completely loses it. And it was hysterical because it was just… “Oh.”

Vivian Le: Did you get a ticket? 

David Roe: We did not get a ticket. 

Newscaster #1: Signs like this are going up at thousands of businesses in California, warning that somewhere on the premises, there are chemicals which could cause cancer or birth defects. The new warning signs are the result of a 1986 ballot initiative, Proposition 65, passed overwhelmingly by California voters. 

Roman Mars: Armed with some impressive celebrity endorsements and a clear environmental message, Proposition 65 passed in a landslide victory. 

Tom Epstein: It was the first environmental ballot measure to pass in California since the Coastal Act of 1972. So, it had been 14 years. 

Roman Mars: In the actual language of Prop 65, the drafters of the law never actually defined what a clear and reasonable warning meant. So, David Roe says that when the law actually went into effect, many businesses tried to weasel around this technicality by being purposely opaque about warnings. 

David Roe: And the way they did that was to set up an 800 number and put a sign in front of grocery stores and hardware stores and things like that. 

Vivian Le: In the early days, a pro-business group called the Ingredient Communication Council was created to help companies scheme around Prop 65 regulations. Instead of advising businesses to warn customers about chemical exposure in their products, they hung up generic warning signs outside of places like grocery stores. Those signs basically said, “Hey, guys! There’s this law in California that says we have to warn you about cancer-causing chemicals. And if you want to learn more about that, call this 800 number.”

Roman Mars: If a consumer called that 800 number, they would be directed to a call center in Omaha, Nebraska. 

David Roe: The person at the other end of the phone would say, “Well, do you mean the large size can or the small can? Do you mean the peas in water or the peas with cream sauce? Do you mean the brand by this company or the brand by that company?” And if you got to the end of the 20 questions, they’d push a button and give you a recorded warning. 

Vivian Le: This was quickly determined to be illegal. 

Roman Mars: But this early confusion of what constituted a clear and reasonable warning did do one thing. 

David Roe: It created a very strong incentive for businesses to go in and beg for regulation. “Tell us what will get us off the hook.” And there’s a formula of words that the state came up with early on. 

Roman Mars: That formula of words determined by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment was: “Warning this product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

Vivian Le: From there on out, environmental advocates put Prop 65 to good use. The very first Prop 65 action filed was by a Democratic Senate candidate, who used the law to target oil companies accused of polluting California’s groundwater. 

Roman Mars: And in order to avoid a warning label, a lot of big companies did exactly what the architects of Prop 65 intended. Lots of companies, including Coca-Cola and Gillette, reformulated to avoid the warning label. 

Vivian Le: Roman, you forgot the, uh… 

Roman Mars: Oh, right. Reformulated!

Tom Epstein: Back in the day, there was this liquid called Wite-Out. Are you old enough to remember this? 

Vivian Le: And how! 

Tom Epstein: Wite-Out had a toxic chemical in it. And after Prop 65 passed, they changed the formulation to eliminate that toxic chemical, which, you know, people were touching with their hands and breathing in and stuff like that. So that was the idea–that if they were forced to put a warning on cosmetics and stuff, they would stop doing it. 

Vivian Le: In an ideal world, this is how Proposition 65 would work. Dangerous chemicals would be taken out of products and no warning labels on anything. End of story. But in reality, it’s been a lot messier than that mostly because people who violate Prop 65 don’t face criminal penalties. They face lawsuits. 

Roman Mars: A lot of lawsuits. 

Tom Epstein: We didn’t anticipate that this, you know, legal industry would develop around suing everybody. 

Roman Mars: The attorney general is the principal prosecutor. But Prop 65 states that any private individual acting in the public interest can file a lawsuit against any company exposing consumers to toxic chemicals without properly warning them. And that means it is essentially enforced by everyone. 

David Roe: Regular enforcement by district attorneys and attorneys general and city attorneys couldn’t possibly cover the waterfront. Environmental problems just pop up in too many places. “So, let’s enlist citizen enforcement as a way to make sure that more things get covered.”

Roman Mars: So, if a product doesn’t have a warning label on it, any private individual can test that product for themselves. And if they find a significant level of a toxic chemical, they can file a lawsuit against that business. If that individual wins, they get to collect a penalty fee, which the defendant has to pay. 

Vivian Le: It’s the responsibility of the business being sued to prove their product is under the Prop 65 limit. And if they can’t, they’re liable to pay up to $2,500 per violation per day, which could be a lot of money. 

Bao Vu: These settlements that we’re talking about are in the five or six figures, which is a lot of money for an up-and-coming and growing business, especially if you’re not based in California, especially if your profit margins are low, and especially if you’ve invested your life savings in developing this brand. 

Vivian Le: This is Bao Vu, a partner at Stoel Rives in San Francisco, who heads up the firm’s Proposition 65 practice. 

Bao Vu: You know, I’ve had some clients that, during the course of the representation, go bankrupt. 

Roman Mars: The private enforcement element of Prop 65 has been a powerful tool for environmentalists. But it has also incentivized more lawsuits, which is an issue because not everyone who violates the law is a mustache twirling, Captain Planet villain. 

Vivian Le: Today, there are over 1,000 chemicals on the Proposition 65 list. And–please don’t freak out–but there are varying amounts of these chemicals in a lot of the crap that we eat, buy, and are exposed to. For some businesses, especially smaller ones, it can be difficult and expensive to test for all 1,000 chemicals. 

Bao Vu: I’ve done this for over a decade. This is what I do day in and day out. It’s still hard sometimes to come up with a crystal clear yes or no answer about whether or not a warning is needed. And if this is my bread and butter, how can a small business navigate that law? 

Roman Mars: According to one 2019 study, Prop 65 lawsuits were costing California businesses around $30 million a year. And 76% of that 30 million went straight to attorneys’ fees. 

Nicole Crimm: This law is enforced by bounty hunters and the lawyers that they work with.

Vivian Le: Nicole Crimm is the Product Regulatory Compliance and Trade Manager at Daiso, U.S.A. If you’ve never heard of it, Daiso is sort of like a Japanese equivalent to the dollar store but with cuter stuff. Nicole’s job is to make sure all Daiso products meet federal, state, and local regulations. And one of her biggest beefs is with the type of plaintiffs commonly referred to as bounty hunters. These are the serial plaintiffs that seek out easy settlements to collect penalty fees. 

Nicole Crimm: You get bounty hunters that just treat your company like their own personal bank. They will come. They will buy a handful of items. They’ll go test those items. If they don’t see something, they’ll come back, they’ll buy more, and then they’ll sue you for a handful. And then you settle. And then they come back around. They’ll sue you for a couple more. And then as soon as you settle, they come back around. And they sue you for a few more. 

Roman Mars: Sometimes these plaintiffs are individuals, sometimes they are advocacy groups, and sometimes they’re–finger quote–“advocacy groups.”

Nicole Crimm: So, it seems like the sole thing that they do is they sue companies for money. And then they don’t seem to do anything with the money for the good of the people of California. 

Vivian Le: I fell down a rabbit hole researching these advocacy groups. A lot of them have pseudo environmental sounding names and the same exact Margaret Mead quote on their website. I tried very hard to speak with one of these groups to ask where the money goes from their settlements, but these people are harder to get in touch with than Jane Fonda. 

Roman Mars: And then there are concerns over who these serial plaintiffs are coming after. 

Bao Vu: I have had clients and potential clients reach out to me and say that they feel a lot of Asian brands are recently being targeted. 

David Roe: Proposition 65 annual conference debates about over warning all the time. Pity the poor maker of Asian snacks. This is something that’s gotten… Seriously, this has gotten attention because some lawyers trying to make money have sued some of those. 

Vivian Le: Something that’s been whispered about inside of Prop 65 circles is the number of Asian businesses who have been slapped with lawsuits. You can see this in the number of Prop 65 violation notices on the Attorney General’s website. But it’s also very apparent if you’ve ever stepped inside an Asian supermarket in California. There are Proposition 65 warning labels lining entire supermarket shelves. While I was in the middle of writing this very sentence, I stopped what I was doing to dig through my own pantry. I pulled out at least 11 different Asian food products with a Proposition 65 warning on them. 

Roman Mars: There are a few possible reasons for this. A lot of these businesses sell goods imported from countries with different chemical regulations. Another reason is that some of these businesses are smaller and can’t afford a lengthy litigation process, so they are more likely to settle. 

Bao Vu: I can’t explain their motivations for that, but I will say that it’s often hard for those companies to navigate Proposition 65 when they’re faced with a suit. You know, a lot of times we go to Asian markets–being Asian myself–because the products are cheap. And so, when you’re hit with a notice–a violation–demanding, you know, five or six figures, it’s really hard for a mom-and-pop company to pay for that. 

Vivian Le: I don’t want any exposure to toxic chemicals, but it does make you wonder if these products have a label on them because they’re a threat or because the manufacturers and distributors were an easy target. 

Roman Mars: The amount of lawsuits has become such an uphill battle that many businesses just take the easier route and cover their bases. 

Bao Vu: What we see nowadays is given the challenges to defending a Proposition 65 case–we’re seeing a lot of over warning on products. 

Nicole Crimm: The running joke is, oh, in the state of California, you can get cancer from everything. 

Roman Mars: Critics of Prop 65 describe it as a well-intentioned environmental law that has caused unnecessary collateral damage. Even those who support Proposition 65 admit that as a warning system, these labels have a lot of flaws. 

Vivian Le: But Allan Hirsch, the former Chief Deputy Director of the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment–which is the agency that regulates Prop 65–says that despite those flaws, the labels serve a purpose far beyond just warning us. 

Allan Hirsch: All the exposures that we incur every day add up. They contribute to the risk of cancer that we all face. And… But this is a great sound effect! You see, I should be talking with a siren in the background. It’s perfect! 

Vivian Le: Before Allan Hirsch was interrupted by yet another scattershot warning system, he was telling me that even if they are oversaturated, on a surface level, Prop 65 labels can help consumers make informed decisions about their health. 

Allan Hirsch: The warning is one heads up that you may want to think about whether you want to buy this product. If you do–fine–it’s your right to do it. This is one exposure. It’s not necessarily a life changing thing. But if you, again, want to try to manage that cumulative risk, the warnings are one piece of information that you can use to do that. 

Vivian Le: And on a deeper level, Hirsch wants to emphasize that those ubiquitous warning signs are just the most conspicuous part of a hidden system that’s actually working. 

Allan Hirsch: There have been any number of reformulations over the years, many of which, honestly, we don’t know that much about because businesses do it quietly. They don’t announce it. But we have heard many times from business lobbyists, “Boy, when you guys list a chemical, you wouldn’t believe how much activity it generates among businesses. ‘What’s this chemical? Are we using it? How do we get it out of the product? Can we do that?'” 

Tod Cooperman: By having these warnings, I think, it drives the market to do better. They can do better. 

Vivian Le: This is Tod Cooperman. He’s a researcher and president of consumerlab.com, which provides independent product testing. He actually doesn’t think the labels themselves are great at communicating danger. But he says it’s not necessarily the labels protecting Californians. 

Tod Cooperman: The Prop 65 law is really the only state law out there and really the only law in the country in many regards for a limit on how much contamination there can be in a product–at least without a warning label. The FDA does have some limits where products shouldn’t be sold. But it’s really far behind Prop 65 in terms of, you know, limits on most products. We often have to look at other countries. Canada is certainly ahead of the U.S. in terms of setting limits. 

Roman Mars: You win this round, Canada. 

Tod Cooperman: California is very unique. And hats off to your state for setting these limits. 

Vivian Le: When I was talking with David Roe, he pointed out a striking example from around the time when Prop 65 was first passed. It involved the amount of lead–a substance dangerous at any level–that was allowed to be in the pipes that carried our drinking water.

David Roe: “Lead free,” under federal law, was defined as 8% lead. Anything less than 8% lead was officially, legally, quote, “lead free.” And it’s just to show you the gap between theory and practice in federal law because obviously that was lobbied. That particular regulation that said, “Lead free equals less than 8%,” was a triumph of lobbying into a law that was supposed to keep lead out of things. 

Vivian Le: Prop 65 was able to act as a safeguard to those gaps in federal regulations by encouraging companies to regulate themselves. 

David Roe: And it’s remarkable how many things and what an incredible range of things seem to have gotten through that federal safety net and have been caught by the backstop of Prop 65. 

Vivian Le: David actually whipped out a list of all of these things.

David Roe: “Brass faucets, dishes–China dishes–calcium supplements, water meters, galvanized pipe, crystal decanters, foil caps on wine bottles, brass keys, hand tools, exercise weights, raincoats, electrical tape, electrical cords, bicycle locks, baby rash powders, anti-diarrhea medicines, hair dyes, nasal sprays, spot remover…” I’m not even going to keep going. Those are all things that lead specifically was taken out of. 

Vivian Le: It’s important to note that the federal definition of “lead free” was eventually lowered from 8% to 0.25%, but that change didn’t take place until 2011. 

Roman Mars: When companies removed dangerous chemicals to meet Prop 65 guidelines, it’s not just Californians who benefit from that. The same products are made safer for the rest of the country as well. And because the state of California has the fifth biggest economy in the world, producers globally are pushed to do the same. 

David Roe: That’s just a little adjustment to the world that’s invisible to most people–nobody really knows it’s happening–but is making a big difference in how many toxic chemicals and how many contexts people are getting exposed to in their daily lives, which is, of course, the point. 

Vivian Le: I asked everyone for this story if they could change anything about Prop 65, what would it be? Bao Vu said that he would want to make the law easier to navigate for businesses. Tod Cooperman would want the warning labels themselves to be more helpful to consumers. Allan Hirsch wants it to be a little harder to bring about frivolous lawsuits. And David Roe?

David Roe: I get this question every year at the annual conference, as you can imagine. And of course, somebody wants to either have an aha moment or make me look extremely proud of the original drafting. I try to avoid both. 

Vivian Le: I realize, though, that “How should we change Prop 65?” wasn’t the right question to be asking at all. What we should be actually asking is how can the federal government do more to protect us so that we don’t need Prop 65 anymore? 

Roman Mars: Because imperfect as it is and for all of the headaches, frustrations, and confusion it has caused, Prop 65 is kind of the best thing we’ve got. 

Vivian Le: Now, when I see that Prop 65 label stuck to the front of my fancy new apartment building, I definitely don’t brush it off anymore. That sign is a reminder that I’m witnessing a system that’s failing because if it worked, then there wouldn’t be a warning label at all. But on the other hand, at least I know there’s some sort of system in place trying to keep us all safe, which I wish I could say felt more comforting. 

Vivian Le (field tape): So, I was wondering if you could help me navigate something. 

Vivian Le: Tod Cooperman does product testing and analysis, so I figured if anyone could help me figure out the sign on my apartment building, it would be him. 

Vivian Le (field tape): It says, “Warning: entering this area can expose you to chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm, including benzene, a chemical used in urinal cleaners, and toluene, a chemical used in common household cleaning products.” As a resident of the building, what’s the best way for me to calculate that risk for myself? 

Tod Cooperman: I don’t know. Yeah. I don’t know. Yeah. That’s… I don’t know. 

Nicole Crimm: Yeah, I’m on my own for that one. Okay. 

Roman Mars: After the break, we– Again? I cannot wait for this to pass. Okay. After the break, we revisit another story about excessive alarms. Stay with us. Want to make your next trip unforgettable? Book a GetYourGuide travel experience. Choose from over 100,000 travel experiences in the U.S. and around the world with GetYourGuide. I love to travel. And you can do a little bit of reading and just show up at a place and get something out of where you are. But if you really want to connect with your destination–if you really want to find those under the radar gems and get that local history–you need a guide. You can make memories all over the globe with GetYourGuide’s locally vetted, expertly curated experiences. Discover and book your next unforgettable travel experience with getyourguide.com. Whether you’re a family vacation traveler, a business tripper, or a long weekend adventurer, Choice Hotels has a stay for any you. Choice Hotels has over 7,400 locations and 22 brands, including Comfort Hotels, Radisson Hotels, and Cambria Hotels. Get the best value for your money when you book with Choice Hotels. Cambria Hotels features locally inspired hotel bars with specialty cocktails and downtown locations in the center of it all. That’s what I like. I like to be within walking distance of all the stuff. Radisson Hotels have flexible workspaces to get the most of your business travel and onsite restaurants. And at Comfort Hotels, you’ll enjoy free hot breakfast with fresh waffles, great pools for the entire family, and spacious rooms. With so many hotel brands, Choice Hotels allows you to prioritize what you need. Choice Hotels has a stay for any you. Book direct at choicehotels.com, where travels come true. 

Ashley: Luxury is meant to be livable. Discover the new leather collection at Ashley with premium quality leather sofas, recliners, and more all built to last. No matter how many spills, scuffs, or pet related mishaps come its way, the leather collection at Ashley is made with the durability you need for the whole family. Shop the new leather collection at Ashley and find chairs starting at $499.99 and sofas at $599.99. Ashley–for the love of home. 

Roman Mars: We first ran this next story that you’re about to hear back in 2018, as part of our year-end mini stories. It was the first story that Vivian Le reported for us. Coincidentally, it was also about excessive alarms. And if you listen really closely, you can hear how nervous she is. 

Vivian Le: So, I want to start with the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history. 

Roman Mars: Oh, my goodness. Okay. Go ahead. 

Newscaster #2: For many years, there has been a vigorous debate in this country about the safety of the nation’s 72 nuclear energy power plants. That debate is likely to be intensified because of what happened earlier this morning at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. 

Vivian Le: So, you probably heard about this before because it’s big news. But back in 1979, there was a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 

Newscaster #2: A cooling pump broke down, and the plant did just what it was supposed to do–shut itself off–but not before some radioactivity had escaped. 

Vivian Le: A bunch of communities around the reactor ended up having to evacuate, and it just freaked a lot of people out. 

Roman Mars: They should have been freaked out. That was fricking scary. 

Vivian Le: So, in the aftermath of what happened, the president ordered a commission to investigate what happened. And there was this big postmortem report to try to understand what had gone wrong. 

Roman Mars: And what actually did go wrong?

Vivian Le: Well, it was kind of complicated because a lot of things went wrong. But Three Mile Island was a classic cascading failure type accident. So essentially, a relief valve in one of the reactor units got stuck in the open position, which caused all the coolant to be released. So, the coolant ran out of the core, and it started to overheat. And in the end, it ended up being a pretty minor mechanical breakdown. But what they found out was that it was actually human error that made the whole situation worse. 

Roman Mars: Humans make everything worse. 

Vivian Le: They really do. They really do. 

Roman Mars: A cascading failure of humans. 

Vivian Le: But, you know, the plant operators could see, and they could hear that something was wrong because all these lights are flashing and alarms are sounding. But it wasn’t clear exactly what was wrong because all the alarms were really confusing and just made the situation worse. 

Judy Edworthy: Because they went off all at the same time, that would have hindered communication at the very time when they needed to communicate. 

Roman Mars: And who is that? 

Vivian Le: So that’s Judy Edworthy. She studies psychoacoustics and alarm design at the University of Plymouth. And she told me that Three Mile Island is actually a really common case study when it comes to bad and ineffective alarm design. 

Judy Edworthy: Three Mile Island is very well known for having hundreds of alarms going off in a very short period of time. Now, that’s an example where there was no alarm philosophy because that shouldn’t have happened. 

Roman Mars: So, alarm design really matters. 

Vivian Le: Yes, it definitely matters. And there have actually been other major accidents where alarms were supposed to help people respond to an emergency, but instead they made the situation worse, like the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010, which caused a ton of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico. 

Roman Mars: I didn’t know that had anything to do with an alarm failure. 

Vivian Le: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It turned out that a bunch of the alarm systems on the Deepwater rig had actually been inhibited for at least a year before the accident happened because Transocean, which is the company that ran the rig, didn’t want false alarms to wake up the crew while they were sleeping. 

Roman Mars: So, the alarms were too easily triggered. And so, they just turned them off, so they didn’t upset the operation of the rig? 

Vivian Le: Yeah, exactly. False alarm syndrome, basically. 

Roman Mars: So, this is the kind of stuff that Professor Edworthy thinks about a lot. 

Vivian Le: Yes. Yeah. She thinks about the best ways to design an alarm so that they can accomplish what they need to do. And one of her big concerns is that humans are just bombarded by so many alarms in our everyday life that we just start tuning them out. 

Roman Mars: Or turning them off. 

Judy Edworthy: Because I think the whole world suffers from alarm fatigue. I think we’re just so used to alarms just going off all the time. And they’re almost just a backdrop to our lives. 

Vivian Le: She says that the average person probably hears about 100 different types of alarms a day. 

Judy Edworthy: They’re just all the time. You stand at the cash register, and it’s beeping away. You hear car alarms going off. And you’ve got microwaves. And everything beeps and for no good reason quite a lot of the time. 

Vivian Le: And so, people just start tuning them out, and they lose track of which alarms are important and which ones aren’t. If everything in the world is beeping, we kind of forget that those beeps are trying to point out actual problems. But another consideration is that alarm tones themselves should communicate something about what the problem is. 

Roman Mars: And so how does that work? 

Vivian Le: Okay. So, when you think of an alarm sound, what do you think of? 

Roman Mars: Well, I think of, a bracing, klaxon, beeping, siren, high-pitched, shrill alarm. Alarming. Upsetting. 

Vivian Le: Yes, yes, exactly. So, we basically all have, like, one cultural reference point for what an alarm should sound like. And that’s because, like, in the olden days, we didn’t really have much range in terms of alarm mechanisms. 

Judy Edworthy: In the past, you could only make an alarm by either pushing air through an object, like a klaxon, or by hitting something, like a bell. 

Vivian Le: We associate these archaic noises, like bells and whistles and sirens and klaxons, with auditory alarms because that’s just what the technology at the time allowed for. And we got used to it. So, Judy made actually this kind of funny point, which is that we have such a narrow idea of what an alarm should sound like, that it even shows up in futuristic sci-fi movies. 

Judy Edworthy: Sci-fi films–all sorts of wonderful things happen in the film. But alarms go off, and they’re just the same alarms that were used to. It’s like in the film The Martian, right? They can do all these wonderful things and get to Mars, but they can’t design better alarms than we’ve got now. 

Roman Mars: That’s a lot of alarm sounds. 

Judy Edworthy: Yeah. 

Roman Mars: Oh, Lordy. 

Vivian Le: And they all kind of sound the same. 

Roman Mars: That guy’s in trouble.

Vivian Le: But–yeah–with digital sound, you know, so much more is possible. You can make an alarm sound like basically anything. 

Judy Edworthy: You can use music. Some people use tones or sequences or melodies. You can use sounds of real objects doing real things. And we tend to refer to these as “auditory icons,” but really, they’re just metaphors. 

Vivian Le: And I love this. I love the idea of auditory icons and metaphorical sounds; it’s just really interesting and cool to me. 

Roman Mars: So, what’s a good example of an auditory icon? 

Vivian Le: Okay, so hospitals are notorious for having these terrible soundscapes because of the sheer amount of alarms that are just constantly going off at all hours of the night. And they’re all just beeps and tones that are kind of variations of each other. So, Judy designed this new tone that’s meant to be used when there’s a problem related to a patient’s medication. And this is how it works. 

Judy Edworthy: What you might do is you would announce an alarm by using something like this to get your attention. And that’s followed by… 

Vivian Le: See? 

Roman Mars: Yeah. I mean that’s interesting. So, there’s a little bit of an attention grabber and then something metaphorical, so you can really tell what it is. 

Vivian Le: Right. The sound of the pill bottle kind of cues medication in your head. So, you kind of already know what the problem is before you even address it. 

Judy Edworthy: What we find with these auditory icons is that they’re very, very easy to learn. You just tell people once what they mean, and then they’re away. They’ve understood it. 

Vivian Le: So instead of some generic and alarming alarm sound that could literally mean anything–which is what happened at Three Mile Island–you can imagine these auditory icons that kind of communicate exactly what the problem is. So, there wouldn’t be this confusion about trying to decipher what this one tone means. 

Roman Mars: Except for at Three Mile Island, when there’s 100 things going wrong, it would sound like a preschool classroom–sounds and woops and rattles. But that becomes the sound design challenge. How do you preference which one you hear the loudest? And in what order do you hear them? It’s really a cool concept to begin to tackle. 

Vivian Le: Yeah. Yeah. You basically have to rethink an environment from the top down in terms of what it sounds like. 

Roman Mars: Well, cool. Thank you so much. 

Vivian Le: No thank you. 

Roman Mars: 99% Invisible was produced by Vivian Le and edited by Neena Pathak. The auditory alarms mini story was originally reported by Vivian Le and produced by Delaney Hall. Mix by Haziq bin Ahmad Farid and Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Tape syncing by Catherine Monahan. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett Fitzgerald, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Joe Rosenberg, Gabriella Gladney, Kelly Prime, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Sarah Baik, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. Special thanks this week to Tom Epstein and Michael Waters. Michael wrote all about Prop 65 for Vox and if you want to read more, you can find a link to that article on our website. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. Home of the Oakland Roots Soccer Club, of which I am a proud community owner. Other teams may come and go, but the Roots are Oakland first, always. You can find us on all the usual social media sites, as well as our new Discord server. It’s a great time over there. There’s a link to that, as well as every past episode of 99PI, at 99pi.org.



This episode was produced by Vivian Le and edited by Neena Pathak. The auditory alarms coda was reported by Vivian Le and produced by Delaney Hall. Prop 65 warning photos by Vivian Le.

Vivian spoke with David Roe, primary author of California Proposition 65, Bao Vu, Consumer Products and Prop 65 Attorney; Nicole Crimm, Product Regulatory and Trade Compliance at Daiso, USA; Tod Cooperman, President at ConsumerLab.com; Allan Hirsch, the former Chief Deputy Director of the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment

Special thanks this week to Tom Epstein and Michael Waters. Michael wrote all about Prop 65 for Vox and if you want to read more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize