Coffee drinkers in California will now have their morning latte served with a side order of intimidating cancer warnings, thanks to a recent court ruling, according to the Washington Post.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle found that businesses that sell coffee were violating the state’s infamous Proposition 65, which requires businesses to disclose any carcinogens and toxic chemicals in their products. Coffee, it was argued, falls under the purview of Proposition 65, as it contains acrylamide.

Acrylamide, which forms when certain foods are cooked at a high temperature, is a naturally-occurring substance which the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists as a human neurotoxin and a “group 2a probable carcinogen."

Coffee drinking adults: Should you be worried?

Sounds bad, but should the 83 percent of American adults who regularly enjoy a cup of joe start to worry? Probably not.

For a start, there is no scientific consensus that coffee is carcinogenic to humans. Animal studies have found that putting acrylamide in drinking water can cause cancer in rats and mice, but only by dosing these unfortunate rodents with amounts between 1,000 to 100,000 times what people get through their diet.

And as with any chemical, it’s the dose that makes the poison—so unless you drink 6,000 cups of coffee a day, you’re probably okay.

Not only is there no compelling evidence that coffee is a carcinogen, there is evidence that it might actually help prevent cancer. Studies in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention and the BMJ suggest that drinking at least one cup of coffee per day was associated with a 15 percent reduced risk for liver cancer and an eight percent reduced risk for endometrial cancer.

Data also suggests that coffee drinkers may be less likely to suffer from oral/pharyngeal cancer and advanced prostate cancer too.

Small wonder then, that the ruling has many cancer experts scratching their heads. Mariana Carla Stern, a University of Southern California professor who studies diet and cancer, commented: “I can understand the logic of the judge, by going by the book.

But I can also understand the science. From the science standpoint, there’s no reason the public should worry about drinking coffee.”

The ruling is on shaky ground

Also placing this ruling on shaky ground is the fact that the agency which classified acrylamide as a carcinogen, IARC, has been under increased scrutiny recently— including by the US Congress—for possible scientific misconduct. A damning series of Reuters reports last year indicated that the IARC edited out findings in its review into the weed killer glyphosate that were at odds with its final conclusion that the chemical probably causes cancer.

The widely discredited glyphosate review wasn’t the only example of what U.S. Congressman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) described as IARC’s “shoddy work..

When chemical engineer Melvyn Kopstein wrote to the IARC to point out errors—specifically a gross underestimation of the average person’s exposure to the chemical benzene— he had identified in its work, he was told that the agency agreed that there were limitations to the review of the chemical, but nonetheless did “not plan to amend (it) or take any further action.”

This is certainly not the level of scientific integrity the world expects from an agency that is supposed to be helping us lessen our risk of developing a deadly disease. Unsurprisingly, then, decision-makers have started to take its findings with a hefty pinch of salt. Indeed, in sharp contrast to Berle’s ruling, a federal judge in California recently issued a preliminary injunction ruling that businesses should not have to issue Proposition 65 warnings on products containing glyphosate because IARC’s science just does not stand up to scrutiny, meaning that any such warning would be “misleading at best”.

IARC in the spotlight

Understandably, these recent events have put not only the IARC in the spotlight, but have also highlighted the problems with Proposition 65 itself. A law instituted in 1986 with the most laudable of motives – to protect Californians’ health and water supply – has become twisted out of shape and is now having a net negative impact.

Proposition 65 warnings have become so commonplace that the average consumer can’t separate truly harmful chemicals from low-risk ones, not least because the manner in which the law is being applied does not make that all important distinction between hazard (the innate ability of a substance to do harm) and risk (the likelihood of this harm occurring), as its attitude to coffee has neatly demonstrated.

The public has quite understandably become inured to the many cancer warnings in its midst. Meanwhile, Californian cancer rates are no different than elsewhere in the US, suggesting that Proposition 65 doesn’t help Californians avoid cancer—it just makes sure they get to worry about it a lot more too.

In an ironic twist, perhaps the only people truly benefiting from the law are the so-called ‘bounty hunters’ who have made a career out of filing Prop. 65 lawsuits against even the smallest of businesses in the hope of making big bucks and – of course – the lawyers who facilitate this. In 2016, 760 Proposition 65 lawsuits settled for a staggering total of $30.2 million, of which 72 percent went to lawyers’ fees and costs.

It’s no wonder then, that California is increasingly considered a risky place to do business, meaning that the economy and Californian workers are also casualties of Proposition 65’s shortcomings.

This recent coffee case, which has drawn global attention, may finally be the catalyst needed for change. As it stands, Proposition 65 isn’t helping to prevent cancer— it is just harming businesses and filling the coffers of lawyers. It’s long past time to realize that Proposition 65 needs to be radically revised or replaced to achieve its original aims.