Acrylamide – Its In/On EVERYTHING!

This photograph posted by online talk show host Dave Rubin (The Rubin Report) snapped at a Starbucks (presumably) somewhere in California, interested me. Since I love delving into these things, we will start with proposition 65.


The California Office Of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has a good explaination of the law for the average laymen. The entirety is linked above, but I will grab some of the more important aspects as pertaining to this piece.

What Is Proposition 65?

In 1986, California voters approved an initiative to address their growing concerns about exposure to toxic chemicals. That initiative became the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, better known by its original name of Proposition 65. Proposition 65 requires the State to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm. This list, which must be updated at least once a year, has grown to include approximately 800 chemicals since it was first published in 1987.

Proposition 65 requires businesses to notify Californians about significant amounts of chemicals in the products they purchase, in their homes or workplaces, or that are released into the environment. By providing this information, Proposition 65 enables Californians to make informed decisions about protecting themselves from exposure to these chemicals. Proposition 65 also prohibits California businesses from knowingly discharging significant amounts of listed chemicals into sources of drinking water.

How is a chemical added to the list?

There are four ways for a chemical to be added to the Proposition 65 list. A chemical can be listed if either of two independent committees of scientists and health professionals finds that the chemical has been clearly shown to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm. These two committees-the Carcinogen Identification Committee (CIC) and the Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant (DART) Identification Committee-are part of OEHHA’s Science Advisory Board. The committee members are appointed by the Governor and are designated as the “State’s Qualified Experts” for evaluating chemicals under Proposition 65. When determining whether a chemical should be placed on the list, the committees base their decisions on the most current scientific information available. OEHHA staff scientists compile all relevant scientific evidence on various chemicals for the committees to review. The committees also consider comments from the public before making their decisions.

A second way for a chemical to be listed is if an organization designated as an “authoritative body” by the CIC or DART Identification Committee has identified it as causing cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm. The following organizations have been designated as authoritative bodies: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (U.S. FDA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, National Toxicology Program, and International Agency for Research on Cancer.

A third way for a chemical to be listed is if an agency of the state or federal government requires that it be labeled or identified as causing cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm. Most chemicals listed in this manner are prescription drugs that are required by the U.S. FDA to contain warnings relating to cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.

A fourth way requires the listing of chemicals meeting certain scientific criteria and identified in the California Labor Code as causing cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm. This method established the initial chemical list following voter approval of Proposition 65 in 1986 and continues to be used as a basis for listing as appropriate.

What requirements does Proposition 65 place on companies doing business in California?

Businesses are required to provide a “clear and reasonable” warning before knowingly and intentionally exposing anyone to a listed chemical. This warning can be given by a variety of means, such as by labeling a consumer product, posting signs at the workplace, distributing notices at a rental housing complex, or publishing notices in a newspaper. Once a chemical is listed, businesses have 12 months to comply with warning requirements.

What does a warning mean?

If a warning is placed on a product label or posted or distributed at the workplace, a business, or in rental housing, the business issuing the warning is aware or believes that one or more listed chemicals is present. By law, a warning must be given for listed chemicals unless exposure is low enough to pose no significant risk of cancer or is significantly below levels observed to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm.

What are safe harbor numbers?

As stated above, to guide businesses in determining whether a warning is necessary or whether discharges of a chemical into drinking water sources are prohibited, OEHHA has developed safe harbor levels. A business has “safe harbor” from Proposition 65 warning requirements or discharge prohibitions if exposure to a chemical occurs at or below these levels. These safe harbor levels consist of No Significant Risk Levels for chemicals listed as causing cancer and Maximum Allowable Dose Levels for chemicals listed as causing birth defects or other reproductive harm. OEHHA has established over 300 safe harbor levels to date and continues to develop more levels for listed chemicals.

What if there is no safe harbor level?

If there is no safe harbor level for a chemical, businesses that expose individuals to that chemical would be required to provide a Proposition 65 warning, unless the business can show that the anticipated exposure level will not pose a significant risk of cancer or reproductive harm. OEHHA has adopted regulations that provide guidance for calculating a level in the absence of a safe harbor level. Regulations are available at Article 7 and Article 8 of Title 27, California Code of Regulations. Determining anticipated levels of exposure to listed chemicals can be very complex. Although a business has the burden of proving a warning is not required, a business is discouraged from providing a warning that is not necessary and instead should consider consulting a qualified professional if it believes an exposure to a listed chemical may not require a Proposition 65 warning.

So as you can see, this is (likely) a California only thing. But the next obvious question is, what on earth is Acrylamide? And why is Starbucks forced to have a disclaimer of its presence shown in its California locations?

For this, I turn to the National Cancer Institute (at the National Institute of Health) .

Acrylamide is primarily used for industrial purposes, as a building block of both polyacrylamide and acrylamide copolymers. These are used in the manufacturing of paper, plastics, dyes as well as in the treatment of drinking water and waste water. They can also be found in such consumer products as adhesives and food packaging (thought to contain trace amounts of the chemical).

Researchers have found the chemical in certain foods prepared at above 120C/248F, but not in foods prepared below that temperature. Potato chips and fries were found to contain higher levels of the chemical then other foods tested. Though the WHO and other international health entities state that the levels of this chemical in foods poses a “major concern”, both agree that more research on the affects has to be done.

Though packaging is one possible source of contamination, one must also note that the cooking process itself can create it in some instances. In particular, vegetables that  contain the protein building block  Asparagine. When heated to high temperatures (such as frying , baking or broiling) and in the presence of certain sugars, asparagine can form acrylamide. Longer cooking times above 120C/248F appear to increase the production of the chemical, and boiling and microwaving appear to lesson the production of the chemical.

Another major source of exposure to the chemical is cigarette smoke. There can be exposure by other means, but these amounts are thought to be minute compared to tobacco smoke and food exposure.

As for your long term cancer risk due to exposure of the chemical from ANY source, the jury is currently out. It is noted as a “probable human carcinogen” based on laboratory testing with animals, but there is some conflict over that conclusion (as there is thought to be a difference to how rodents and humans absorb acrylamide).

So at the end of the day, I would not be overly worried.

It appears that this sign is just due to a California law requirement, or potentially a reaction to some online scare campaign. Which would not surprise me, since California is for the most part a  liberal bubble. And liberal bubbles tend to be where the “All Natural” feigns live.
This may even be on account of some “warning” put out by one of the syndicated Doctor shows on TV.

Either way, I am not losing sleep (or quitting drinking coffee) on account to it.

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