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What does the carcinogenic substances warning on the box of my knife mean?

On some packages of American brands you can find disturbing warnings. Stickers that tell you more about the presence of carcinogenic substances, for instance. But what does this ‘Proposition 65’ warning actually mean?

In the United States you often come across warnings and disclaimers. On some packages containing knives you will, for instance, find warnings that are, to put it nicely, quite alarming. One of the most explicit warnings is the following:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

And that is quite the statement, one you can find on the boxes of many large brands. Buck Knives, for instance, has printed this warning on its boxes and also ESEE Knives has printed it on top of their packaging. Both pretty big brands. But what does it really mean? Are these knives life threatening on a chemical level?

California Proposition 65

No, fortunately they are not. The abovementioned warning is the result of the California Proposition 65. A law from 1986 that formally carries the name of The Safe Drinking water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. This law states that manufacturers who use a certain product or chemical element, reported on a by the government issued list, in their production process, should always mention it on the box.

Which substances does it concern?

The list with chemicals that force you to put a sticker on the box is very long. Very, very long. As we write this it even contains 800 substances. From chlorine and chlorine related substances to cocaine and alcohol. After all, strictly speaking these are also substances that give you at least a 1 in the 100.000 chance of developing certain problems after exposure. How substantial that exposure is and how you might be exposed is not mentioned anywhere.

Why can I find a warning on the box of my knife?

With a list that long, a list that is also revised each year, the chance is pretty big that at some point you will find an element that is also (indirectly) mentioned on the list. The use of brass, for instance, is already enough to require a Proposition 65 sticker. Brass, after all, contains a minimal, negligible amount of led, which is also on the list. For that reason a knife with a brass bolster gets a sticker. Or think of thoroughly degreasing a knife with an industrial alcohol before it is being glued: sticker. A handle material that contains phenol: sticker. Some lubricants: sticker.

As a result many companies that make products that could end up in California take precautions and make sure to enhance their packaging with this frightening text. Better safe than sorry.

So yes, when you are in the States you will probably run into a lot more of these stickers on different products. From head phones to coffee mugs and from refrigerators to tattoos. Fortunately, in most cases, this type of warning doesn’t mean that you are in actual danger.

Is the law nonsense?

Many critical voices claim that the law no longer serves its purpose. This, however, does not mean that the law is nonsense. The substances we are talking about can, to a certain extent, actually be dangerous or harmful. However, it is also safe to say that the risk is insignificant for the knives we sell. As long as you don’t eat the brass bolsters and clean the blade before use you won’t be in any danger. Otherwise selling these types of products would be completely forbidden and not just enhanced with an ominous warning.