A major earthquake shook California Feb. 27, but it wasn't a geologic event--it was the state's new law, Proposition 65, kicking in, requiring warnings on consumer products that contain cancer-causing chemicals. The aftershock will be felt for years to come and the effects may drift eastward, revolutionizing the way people across the U.S. deal with toxic substances.
Under the law, no business may expose people (workers, consumers, or the general public) to chemicals that can cause cancer or birth defects without giving "clear and reasonable warning."
The California law was passed overwhelmingly by popular referendum in November, 1986, and became effective last month. The law, for the first time, shifts the burden of proof from consumers onto companies, which must now prove their products and emissions cause "no significant risk" or they must give public warnings.
The law also contains a bounty provision whereby citizens who sue violators can keep 25% of any fines.
The law now covers only 29 chemicals, but an additional 149 will be added later. Covered today are common toxics like benzene, lead, vinyl chloride, chromium, arsenic, and asbestos.
Grocery store chains are fearful the law will require the labeling of every item on the shelf. "Every single one of the 15,000 items in a market has measurable amounts of at least one of the 29 chemicals," says Jeffrey Nedelman, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. Mr. Nedelman is exaggerating, but his point is well taken: the law requires grocery stores and other sellers of consumer products to look into the contents of what they sell. This of course is the intention of the law. It represents a radical departure from the "buyer beware" philosophy that has prevailed in the past and which has allowed American consumer products to become saturated with hazardous chemicals.
The California wine industry is worried that it will be required to label its products as teratogens (causing birth defects). For now, the law is only requiring warning signs at the point of sale (supermarkets, restaurants, taverns, liquor stores) but environmentalists are pushing to have the bottles themselves labeled as health hazards. "We are saying if there is any product for which labeling is appropriate it is alcohol because it is often drunk by people who do not buy it," says David Roe of the Environmental Defense Fund, a coauthor of the law.
We have said for a long time that labeling products with their hazardous contents is the first step toward solving the problem of toxic exposures and the solid waste crisis. Until people know what chemicals are in their breakfast cereal and in their morning newspaper, they can't make sensible decisions about what to eat or how to dispose of their solid waste. Hats off to the environmental leaders of California--once again they have shown us the way.
Copies of Prop 65, formally known as The SAFE DRINKING WATER AND
TOXIC ENFORCEMENT ACT, may be obtained from the California
Secretary of State in Sacramento: (916) 445-6371.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: ca; legislation; proposition 65; cancer; carcinogens; consumer protection; toxicity; developmental disorders; occupational safety and health; risk assessment; lawsuits; birth defects; david roe; environmentalists;