As somebody with a two espresso per day habit, I read with interest the New York Times article regarding the ongoing litigation to force coffee companies to give consumers warnings under California’s Proposition 65. Anybody who has spent significant time in California is familiar with the signs warning that “this item/area has chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and/or reproductive harm.”
But what does this truly mean?
Adopted as a ballot measure in 1986, Proposition 65 requires California to maintain a list of hazardous chemicals and for private businesses to warn consumers when they are exposed to those chemicals. The only exception embodied in the statute and regulation is for exposures that are deemed insignificant. An insignificant exposure for cancer is one where lifetime exposure would be expected to cause no more than one additional case of cancer in an exposed population of 100,000 people. Whatever you or I think of this definition, any exposure to a listed chemical that exceeds this threshold must come with a warning, or the business creating the exposure is liable for penalties.
The decision in this latest phase of the trial, meant to determine whether the defendants could establish an “alternate” level to be applied to coffee, was handed down last week. The judge clearly laid out the requirements to establish the alternate level and the gaps in the defendants’ testimony, including the examination of coffee’s potential health benefits. If this preliminary decision holds then Californians will soon be seeing warning signs at all coffee retailers warning them of the “cancer risk” from coffee. It’s also worth noting that listing a chemical on the Proposition 65 list does not require human evidence – in fact, there is very little human evidence supporting cancer harm hypotheses for acrylamide.
Is this truly a statement of risk? Or is this a statement of hazard?
Both the World Health Organization and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have listed acrylamide as a “probable human carcinogen”. Both agencies, however, render these determinations based more on hazard than risk. In terminology more familiar to the insurance industry, this is a technical risk devoid of exposure and probability measures. The EPA summarizes it well:
The risk characterization also brings together the assessments of hazard, dose response, and exposure to make risk estimates for the exposure scenarios of interest.
In recent discussions with our clients, the difference between risk and hazard has taken on a more central role. Praedicat’s analytics speak to both hazard and risk. In order to fully gauge the risk presented by a hazard, a wise underwriter or risk manager will consider the insured’s exposure to hazard along with the probability of the worst scenarios coming to pass. Praedicat’s tools are designed to give our users detailed information on all of these aspects of latency risk.
The National Cancer Institute notes that, among foods, coffee is a major source of acrylamide, along with potato chips, bread, breakfast cereals and canned black olives. But the government agency also mentions on its website that acrylamide levels in food vary widely and that “people are exposed to substantially more acrylamide from tobacco smoke than from food.”