How do you like your cup of cancer in the morning? I take mine with fake sugar and skim milk. Lame, I know. But there’s no accounting for taste in carcinogens. Or, in this case, coffee.
You’ve probably seen the bemused headlines: “Coffee in California may soon come with a spoonful of cancer warnings.” There’s wacky California, doing its liberalism-through-regulation schtick again.
At issue is a lawsuit brought by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics against coffee purveyors such as Starbucks for not warning consumers about a potential carcinogen in their product. Although the suit was first filed in 2010, a ruling from the Los Angeles County Superior Court is expected soon.
The alleged culprit is acrylamide, a compound formed when coffee beans are roasted. Under Proposition 65, passed in 1986, any company of more than 10 employees has to warn its customers about the presence of one of nearly 900 toxins on a state list. Acrylamide is on that list. Yet the state’s leading purveyors of caffeine failed to disclose that fact. That omission could cost them millions in penalties and fees.
But is coffee-based acrylamide really a threat to public health - possibly a major one, given that we’re a nation of caffeine junkies?
“Coffee is connected to cancer development by the fact that coffee is sometimes drunk by living people and only living people develop cancer,” said Robert A. Weinberg, an oncologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I took that as a “no.”
Kathryn M. Wilson agreed. A cancer epidemiologist at Harvard University, she has studied the effects of acrylamide on the human body. “I think the evidence that acrylamide makes a difference for human cancer risk is pretty weak,” she said. Wilson explained that studies connecting acrylamide to ovarian or endometrial cancer for women were based on questionnaires about how often the subjects consumed coffee. The link to ovarian cancer was discounted through subsequent research based on blood analysis.
In 2016, the World Health Organization declared that there was “inadequate evidence for the carcinogenicity of coffee drinking,” dropping a previous designation of possible carcinogenicity.
“This whole thing kind of bums me out,” Wilson confessed. “It’s a somewhat outdated and reductionist approach to nutrition.” As a chemical solution, coffee is a complex brew (sorry) of about 1,500 compounds, and maybe 50 times that much if you’re drinking a pumpkin spice latte. In other words, nobody is serving you a cup full of acrylamide. “It’s a lot more helpful to look at coffee as a food,” Wilson said. And it’s a food, she pointed out, that is the main source of antioxidants for many people. Coffee has also been shown to lower the risk of liver cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
Yet fears persist. As a society we have come to distrust expertise, allowing our beliefs, however suspect, primacy over the consensus of elites. And the internet only nurses our private paranoias, whether of chemicals or immigrants. The truth is always out there, on 4chan or Reddit, where brave souls will tell you what neither the Central Intelligence Agency nor the National Institutes of Health dare admit.
California’s regulatory burden is also to blame. Prop. 65, or the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, was billed as a way to warn residents if they were in danger of chemical exposure. The law’s supporters failed to account for the fact that we rely on approximately 80,000 chemicals in our daily lives, making complete avoidance of potential toxins impossible. Sometimes, as with the lead-tainted water supply in Flint, Mich., exposure is dangerous and even criminal. In most cases, it is neither, merely the necessary consequence of modernity.
The Prop. 65 warnings are obviously well-meaning, and just as obviously misguided. I remember noticing one in a parking garage during my first visit to the state. It was outrageously useless. What were people supposed to do, not park their cars? Same with Prop. 65 warnings in elevators, at airports, in public spaces, which render one helpless in the face of what appears to be a carcinogenic assault.
The state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment recognizes that there’s a problem with Prop. 65 - what agency spokesman Sam Delson called “overwarning.” In fact, come August, Prop. 65 warnings will have to more closely adhere to a “clear and reasonable” standard, informing people instead of merely frightening them. Delson said the new warnings “will have to name the type of hazard and at least one specific chemical.”
But better signage won’t stop lawyers such as Raphael Metzger, who brought the Council for Education and Research on Toxics lawsuit. Although Metzger didn’t answer multiple requests for comment, he has previously said that he likes coffee - good to know - and merely wants his acrylamide-free. (In case you share his concerns: Darker roasts have less acrylamide.) Several coffee companies have already settled. Others fight on, knowing that a Prop. 65 warning would be an expensive new cost of doing business in California. It would be a bummer too.
I want to believe Metzger is suing for the right reasons, but he has given little cause for confidence, playing right into the Republican caricature of the greedy torts attorney.
Nathan A. Schachtman, a Manhattan lawyer specializing in health-effect claims, argues that the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, a supposed nonprofit is, in effect, nonexistent. Metzger is the only officer. CERT shares the address of Metzger’s law firm in Long Beach.
“I am not aware of any educational or research activities of CERT,” Schachtman wrote in an email, “but I am aware that CERT has sued in its own name, in several cases, in California. Even if CERT does not itself profit from these lawsuits, its counsel and alter ego would appear to do so.”
“Mr. Metzger’s practice of filing lawsuits and amicus briefs on behalf of an organization that sounds like a public-interest advocacy group, when the group, CERT, is Metzger himself seems deceptive, and is certainly lacking in transparency,” Schachtman added.
Whether or not Metzger is a pure-of-heart crusader, he has inadvertently highlighted our confused approach to public health. In a society in which individual liberty is sacrosanct, the consumer is generally free to make his or her own decisions. But we’ve never really decided how much government should qualify that choice. If we need warnings about nicotine, then why not sugar? For that matter, why doesn’t the federal government simply tell corporations what they can and can’t market to the public?
Wilson, the Harvard epidemiologist, understands the craze to label. “If you think cancer is due to these chemicals you can label and avoid, that’s comforting,” she said. But it is also delusive. A label isn’t going to reduce the fundamental, frustrating uncertainty inherent in modern life. If you find that disturbing, you can always stop drinking coffee and, just to be safe, move to a cabin in Siskiyou County while you’re at it. No pesticides or electromagnetic frequencies will reach you there. But you will have to do something about the mountain lions and bears.
Alexander Nazaryan is a senior writer for Newsweek covering national affairs.