The other morning, while humming The Sexy Getting Ready Song and psyching myself up for my decennial epilator attempt, I found a warning that stung only a bit less than forty spinning pairs of tweezers:
WARNING: Cancer and Reproductive Harm
I don’t want to minimize the risks of hair removal. Writing about that corpse-littered history for The Atlantic, Nadine Ajaka shows that formerly popular methods of women’s hair removal—including rat poison and radiation—could lead to serious injury and death for women and their fetuses. But what about an epilator is so risky, apart from the bleeding, rashes, ingrown hairs, skin discoloration, and breathtaking pain?
I went to the website listed on the package, where I learned what millions of more thorough package readers already know. California’s Proposition 65, a.k.a. the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, “requires businesses to provide warnings to Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
One problem with ballot propositions is that they’re often worded in ways that appear to force a choice. For example: Do you want the state of California to warn you about products that could kill you or damage your unborn baby, or do you NOT want the state of California to warn you about products that could kill you or damage your unborn baby?
I’m not being completely fair to California’s 1986 ballot measure here. The actual text of Proposition 65 read “RESTRICTIONS ON TOXIC DISCHARGES INTO DRINKING WATER; REQUIREMENT OF NOTICE OF PERSONS' EXPOSURE TO TOXICS.”
And that was just the title. The summary of the proposition made voting seem like a choice between clean water and death: “Provides persons doing business shall neither expose individuals to chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity without first giving clear and reasonable warning, nor discharge such chemicals into drinking water.” That Proposition 65 passed by a 63-37 percent margin is a credit to the voters willing to ask when it might be right to vote no on clean water.
In October 1986, the Los Angeles Times’ urged voters to vote no on Proposition 65, because while the goal of toxin-free water was “commendable,” the proposed legislation was too broad. The editors did, however, consider fear of government overreach to be overblown, and declared that Proposition 65 would “not lead to the banning of ordinary table salt or require warning labels on every apple sold or cup of coffee served in California.”
Three decades later, it’s clear that the proposition was indeed too broad. Despite the LA Times’ assurances to voters in 1986, coffee drinkers in 2018 had a short-lived scare when a Los Angeles judge used Proposition 65 to rule that coffee should come with a warning label. That’s just one of many unintended consequences, because woodworking tools, hotels, and amusement parks all now carry warnings.
Combine fear of cancer and fear of birth defects and you’ll panic a good chunk of parents-to-be, which is why California’s cancer warnings have inspired lots of questions on parenting forums. At babycenter, for example, pregnant women have asked about the likelihood of birth defects after using bikini trimmers, hair straighteners, nail polish, organic pregnancy snacks, sunglasses, birthing balls, ovens, and warming lights for bearded dragon lizard enclosures. Once their babies are born, posters’ panic turns to cancer risk from paint, gliders, storage bins, bean bags, nightstands, baby monitors, baby clothes, Dora the Explorer lunchboxes, trampolines, Christmas lights, phone cases, one-pound weights, tiny cans of mandarin oranges, and vitamins.
What’s remarkable about all of these questions is that whenever a poster raises the alarm, a Californian pops up in the comments to reassure her. When one pregnant woman feared birth defects from her birthing ball, another wrote “According to CA everything causes cancer. Just don’t eat the ball and you should be fine.”
When another pregnant woman was ready to throw out a pair of one-pound weights, another Californian chimed in: “Everything in CA has a Prop 65 warning on it. I don't even see them anymore. There [sic] so many everywhere, I'm blind to them.”
When a parent worried about electrical tape, another wrote “When we lived in SoCal, our church building & the laundry room at our apartment complex both had signs saying that. You will be just fine!”
These reassurances demonstrate a second unintended consequence of Prop 65: at least some Californians see so many warnings that the warnings have become invisible.
The biggest unintended consequence of laws like Proposition 65 is neither products that cause unnecessary panic nor citizens who, by virtue of repeated warning, become unpanic-able, even when panic would be warranted. It’s not even that the 900-plus chemicals on The Proposition 65 List make it look as though the world is awash in toxins that will kill us all, even though testing in animals isn’t the same as testing in humans and not all carcinogens are likely to cause cancer in the amounts we’re exposed to. It’s that a simple list of chemicals encourages us to ask overly simplistic questions like “Can x cause y?”
Asking “can epilators cause birth defects?” is kind of like asking “do epilators hurt?” The answer is going to be different depending on whom you ask, but it’s always going to be murkier than you’d like before making a purchase decision. Those with prior experience ripping hair from the root aren’t necessarily lying to you when they say epilation doesn’t hurt, or doesn’t hurt as much as it used to, or that it hurts less than childbirth, but those answers aren’t nearly as satisfying as a simple “yes” or “no.”
Likewise, scientists can’t definitively state that something won’t happen just because it hasn’t yet happened. They can say that epilators probably won’t cause birth defects, that the possibility is even vanishingly small, that the chemicals included in the epilators have been shown to cause birth defects in animals but not yet in humans, and that furthermore the dose would have to be unbelievably high, and that furthermore you might need to be eating multiple epilators to ingest even a small amount of the toxin, but they can’t offer a simple “yes” or “no,” because that’s not good science.
We probably can’t get people to stop writing lists of chemicals that may kill or maim, but we can do two things: 1) get more comfortable with nuanced, incomplete, unsatisfying answers to our questions and 2) train ourselves to ask better questions.