The Right Chemistry: Pilates, Cardi B and California warning labels



As a result of Proposition 65, there are labels on items ranging from hammer handles to fishing lures. Here are some things to bear in mind.

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I know very little about Pilates and I must admit I had never heard of Cardi B. But they were both mentioned in questions directed my way about chemical risks.

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“Should I return my Pilates ring?” one correspondent inquired, while another wanted to know why Cardi B was promoting toxic clothing. Both queries came with pictures of warning labels. The Pilates ring warned that “this product can expose you to chemicals including lead which is known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm,” while the question about the toxic clothes was accompanied by a photo of a similar label on a brightly coloured bikini stating, “This product can expose you to Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, lead and cadmium, which are known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm.”

Joseph Pilates was a sickly child born in 1883 in Germany. After reading about the ancient Greeks’ emphasis on athletics, he turned to exercise as a possible remedy for his asthma. It seems to have worked, because he became an avid skier, boxer and gymnast. Pilates emigrated to England in 1912, where he was interned as an “enemy alien” when the First World War broke out. It was during his confinement that he developed a system using bed springs as exercise equipment for his fellow internees. After the war he returned to Germany, where his exercise regimen was adopted by dancers. In 1926, Pilates emigrated to the United States and launched his mind-body system of exercise, achieving widespread popularity. Resistance training, such as compressing a spring, is a big part of the program and a “Pilates ring” made of plastic or plastic-coated metal provides such resistance. It is the plastic component that is responsible for the warning label.

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Cardi B, as I now have learned, is a popular rapper whose sexy clothes are part of her image. She has collaborated with “Fashion Nova” to produce a line of apparel that includes various items made of vinyl. These are the ones that cause concern when customers discover the warning label.

So, is working out with a Pilates ring, or wearing vinyl pants à la Cardi B, a health risk? It all depends on how one interprets a controversial California law originally known as The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, which was passed in 1986.

Let’s take a quick trip back to the days before Proposition 65, as the measure was described on voters’ ballots, became law. In the early 1980s, the quality of drinking water in California came under scrutiny as problems of nitrate runoff from fertilizer and contamination by solvents from the fledgling silica chip industry dominated headlines. The state government proposed a law that would prevent businesses from discharging substances known to be toxic into water systems, and would also require warnings on items that contained substances believed to pose a risk of cancer or reproductive harm to the consumer.

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Proposition 65 quickly proved to be effective when it came to regulating discharges by industry. However, the proposed warning labels on consumer products opened up the proverbial can of worms. The “dose makes the poison” is of course the cornerstone of toxicology, but with carcinogens and hormone-disrupting chemicals, the establishment of a safe dose is a challenge. For carcinogens, a somewhat arbitrary danger level was set at a dose that would present more than a one in 100,000 risk of cancer assuming a lifetime exposure. Reproductive toxins were deemed to be dangerous at a dose in excess of one-one-thousandth of the “no observable effect level (NOAEL)” as determined by animal studies. The NOAEL is the maximum amount that can be administered without causing any effect.

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There are huge safety factors built into both these categories. Lifetime exposure makes sense for some substances in drinking water, which is indeed regularly consumed over a lifetime. It makes much less sense for lead in a Pilates ring. There is no question lead and its compounds are highly toxic, and it is even conceivable that trace amounts may leach out when handling the equipment’s polyvinyl chloride (PVC) coating. It is even possible that this would constitute a lifetime risk, if it were handled in this fashion over a lifetime. But that is hardly the case.

There is another point to be made. Lead compounds were once widely used in PVC as a stabilizer. However, when the toxicity of lead became widely known, these were replaced in PVC by other stabilizers. Unless the plastic comes from old recycled PVC, which is very unlikely because this plastic is not recycled, the probability is that Pilates rings do not contain lead at all.

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Why then the warning? Basically, as protection from profiteering lawyers who have built careers on reaching out-of-court settlements by threatening companies with lawsuits for not being compliant with Proposition 65. It is easier to affix the warning than to go through the complexity and expense of a trial. Because businesses cannot know which of their goods may end up being purchased by Californians, to avoid possible legal action, they affix a Proposition 65 label on any item requiring it no matter where it is sold.

Now for the Cardi B inspired vinyl clothing. To make vinyl soft and pliable, plasticizers such as phthalates are added. Indeed, these have the potential for reproductive toxicity. Again, amounts are important. Because humans are not large rodents, an added safety factor of 1000 is built in to the NOAEL threshold. Should one worry about pants that might contain phthalates that may slightly exceed this remarkable safety margin? I think not, even if one were going to dine on such apparel. One might, however, argue that once such garments are discarded, whatever toxins they contain can find their way into the environment and that justifies a warning label.

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While Proposition 65 has certainly curbed the release of toxic substances into the environment by industry, having warning labels on items ranging from hammer handles to fishing lures may amount to crying wolf, as in the classic Aesop’s fable. Warnings about a real wolf coming to the door may then go unheeded.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society ( He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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