America has become the country of the warning label. California is the warning-label state. Since California voters approved Proposition 65 -- which mandates warnings when people are exposed to known carcinogens or chemicals that cause birth defects -- in 1986, to live in California is to be warned.
Most office buildings and parking garages post Prop. 65 warnings. When you fill your gas tank, there's a warning. When you go to a department store or a restaurant, there are warnings. Ditto the grocery store, where there are warnings not just about lighter fluid, nail polish and the effects of alcohol, but for fruits and vegetables, nuts and fish.
Now, if Attorney General Bill Lockyer has his way, you can expect warning labels for fast-food French fries and potato chips.
If he succeeds, the legislature might as well post a billboard at the border that reads: Eating in California can be hazardous to your health.
In these tight fiscal times, you'd think Lockyer could find a better use of taxpayer money than to spend it in a push to warn the public about something any high-school student knows. French fries are bad for you.
But never passing a chance for a good press release, Lockyer filed a lawsuit against a number of fast-food chains and junk-food producers because their French fries and potato chips contain trace amounts of acrylamide -- a chemical found in asparagus and olives, a natural byproduct of cooking certain starchy foods.
While Lockyer is alarmed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn't sure acrylamide is bad for you. In March, the FDA issued a press release that stated, ''Acrylamide can cause cancer in laboratory animals at high doses, although it is not clear whether it causes cancer in humans at the much lower levels found in food.''
Ed Weil of the attorney general's office thinks the FDA is wrong. He cites U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits on acceptable acrylamide, which is used to treat drinking water, as lifelong exposure can lead to "damage to the nervous system, paralysis, cancer." Weil notes that the Environmental Protection Agency limits acceptable acrylamide amounts to 0.5 micrograms per liter of water, while the government found 40 micrograms in the average serving of chips or fries.
Weil hopes this action will prompt Big Junk Food to change how it cooks chips and fries. Weil agrees there are too many warning signs -- although he argued that grocery stores, for example, post warning signs mainly to stop nuisance lawsuits. Lockyer is pushing the acrylamide issue, Weil said, because it is the government's job to dispense information and let consumers decide if they care about a possible carcinogen. As he put, acrylamide falls into "an in-between category. Depending on how you feel about it, you might want to eat it or you might not want to eat it."
Problem is, there are too many in-betweens -- some 750 other chemicals, according to Weil -- on the Prop. 65 list, and some of those chemicals are ubiquitous or naturally occurring.
As a result, consumers see so many warning signs they can't take them seriously. Even Lockyer isn't that alarmed. In a press release announcing the suit, Lockyer said, "I am not telling people to stop eating potato chips or French fries."
Now I ask you: If people shouldn't stop eating these foods, why post a warning? Michele Corash, a San Francisco attorney who represents five companies being sued by Lockyer, noted that there are so many warnings "we are immunizing the public to signs."
No lie. I've come down with a strong case of warning fatigue. I see the Prop. 65 signs not as valuable warnings, but as nagging. What else would you call a warning against doing something you do every day, like eating, or parking, or shopping?
And whatever I do, it must be wrong, because there's always a sign telling me that what I'm eating, drinking or buying is bad for me. If all of these things are so hazardous, why am I alive?
The scary part is that there are times when consumers need to know there is a danger. As in: You shouldn't drink this because it is poisonous. But consumers don't notice such warnings. Corash noted that sometimes "we need a way to warn consumers when there's a real hazard. Now we can't any more. You have to say: 'We really mean it this time. This isn't like the other warnings.'"
If Lockyer wanted to perform a true public service, he'd devise a way to whittle down the long list of Prop. 65 baddies. Instead, he's fattening up the list.
Oddly, Lockyer is taken this stand as he begins his bid to become state treasurer in 2006. Some treasurer he'd make. With this lawsuit, I'm convinced of only one thing: Lockyer knows how to waste money.