Proposition 65

So, while standing in the California jet-way waiting to board my plane, I noticed this sign. It was most likely a Proposition 65 labeling warning. However, what in the world do you do with that information? How did posting that sign change any behavior? Could I have done anything different to avoid the jet fumes?

prop65 jet

It reads, “Warning. Chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects and other reproductive harm are present in the jet engine exhaust fumes from jet fuel, and exhaust from equipment used to service airplanes. Sometimes these chemicals enter this jet bridge.”

In much the same way, sometimes our warning to employees is pointless. What can they do different? What is the point of telling them something if there is nothing we can do different?

The global harmonization system (GHS) is being implemented in the US by the end of 2013. By 2014 you must train your employees on the new changes to the (Material) Safety Data Sheets (SDS, now). (BTW, there are also some other things you must do).

The message I am trying to make (double irony, I know) is when you are training your employees, how do you measure the effectiveness  If they “sign in and say they were in your training”, were you effective? Here are some suggestions, which might help to measure the right thing:

  • Questions. This ___ number of the audience asked ___ questions.
  • Feedback. I received ____ # of suggestions for the next training.
  • Changes. They are going to implement ____ changes to their workplace.
  • Secondary labeling. (GHS specific, of course) While walking around the site, I noticed ____ secondary labels with the new labeling pictographs.

I admit these aren’t the-best-suggestions-ever. But, warning someone without an alternative, method to change, or way to adopt a change, is really pointless.

From what I have seen, there are not a large amount of formaldehyde exposures in construction. However, there is A LOT of formaldehyde used in construction materials. Formaldehyde can be dangerous at levels undetectable by your nose. And, the symptoms of exposure are nondescript (irritant & tingling of eyes, nose, respiratory tract).

Here are some products that may contain trace (or more) amounts of formaldehyde:

  • resins in plywood, MDF, CDX, particle board/fiber board
  • garage doors
  • drywall
  • roofing
  • glues / mastics
  • paint/coatings
  • carpets
  • insulation (spray in and batting)

I believe the reason we do not see high exposures is due to the limited duration of exposure, and the open-aired nature during the construction. Some exceptions are warehouses with large storage areas of particle board/MDF. (I have found exposures in these areas)

The OSHA exposure limit for formaldehyde is 0.75 ppm (action limit of 0.5 ppm, and short term limit of 2 ppm). However, this may not be low enough, based upon other standards (ACGIH says 0.3 ppm, NIOSH 0.1 ppm)

Another major issue with this hazard in construction is once the space is occupied.

  • Once construction is done, the space may be sealed up, heated, and additional curing can occur.
  • This may release more formaldehyde, and also NOT allow as much to escape (by dilution ventilation).
  • Compounding this issue are the type of occupants in the building. Are there children, non-working adults, immunocompromised individuals, sick, or elderly occupying this space? The OSHA standards are NOT protective for these types of people.

I do not forsee this type of sign being posted immediately after new construction.

formaldehydeOn the plus side, someone has discovered that plants may help reduce formaldehyde & VOC levels in homes. Horticulture Science Kwang Jim Kim,


Reviewing a material safety data sheet (MSDS), or soon to be called a SDS (safety data sheet), can be a useful skill. Most times the product is straightforward and gives you what you need. However, there are somethings to watch for and areas to focus to make your reviewing skills better.

To start,  make sure you have the right SDS. Match the product with the form. If is is not exactly right, find the right one. It must list the model/product name & manufacturer.

Below are some suggestions:SDS

  • What is the date of the SDS?
    • is it the most recent?
    • when was it last updated?
  • Look at section 2/3 (Hazardous components) VERY carefully.
    • google the CAS# and find the name (they sometimes hide the true-name)
    • look at the % of each component
    • what is the listed exposure limit? Is it correct? What about other recommended limits?
    • remember the hazard is only listed in this area if it is greater than 1% of the total
  • Look through each section mindful of how you will be using the product.
    • for example: if you are going to be burning the product, usually the SDS will not address these types of concerns/exposures
    • what are the required PPE during “regular use”
    • what happens if you use this product in a confined area?
    • does the manufacturer recommend air monitoring? when?
  • Familiarize yourself with the emergency procedures
    • what if it spills?
    • disposal?
    • what can cause exposure? inhalation? skin?
  • Look at the other sections with a inquisitive eye
    • do they list other chemicals, which are NOT included in the product section? why?
    • do they mention Proposition 65?
  • Finally,
    • post/make available a copy wherever it’s needed
    • make sure you know the product

It is a mixed-bag when it comes to the quality of SDS from a manufacturer. Some of them will work with you, others are a total-pain. Remember it is YOUR RIGHT to know about the products you use. If you don’t feel comfortable with the information they’ve given you, call them. OR, go find another product.

CaliforniaProp65 labelYou may have seen a product label which states that, “this product is known to cause cancer”…if used in California. (ha)

Proposition 65 is essentially a labeling rule. in 1986, California made a rule mandating anyone selling to California to label the product… if it had a serious health risk. This rule was above and beyond the OSHA reporting limit of 1%, like on a MSDS (henceforth called SDS, BTW).

The rule is actually good. It makes manufacturers tell you if there is anything hazardous in their product, or if they used anything hazardous when they made the product. (Side: If you haven’t heard, some manufacturers like to hide their ingredients, some say for proprietary reasons. Here’s an example)

More information about the rules is here. There is controversy over it’s usefulness (see here), but in this day in age, I believe you should be made aware of the information.

What usually happens is you find a SDS with no information about the product. Then, as you investigate, you find a “Proposition 65 warning”, indicating something about the product which, “may cause cancer”. So you ask, why does this happen? (more FAQ here) Well, the manufacturer used, or contains, something in their product that is hazardous. It can be a nice trail leading to chemicals which to sample for, or investigate.