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The Power of Proposition 65: What you don't see

Posted on Jul 19, 2010 | Comments (1)
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California-Prop-65-Cancer-Sign-S-4625 As part of our ongoing series, "Independence from Toxic Chemicals," Pamela King Palitz describes California's groundbreaking Proposition 65.

People love to poke fun at Proposition 65, the 1986 right-to-know law that requires manufacturers, retailers and other businesses to provide notice to Californians when they are being exposed to toxic chemicals.  Everyone has seen the warning signs at the airport, or on a gas pump, or in a parking structure and thought, “Thanks for the warning, buddy. Really, though … do I have any choice about being here?”

What people don’t understand about Prop. 65 is that its greatest impact is invisible. No warnings are necessary where no toxic chemicals are present.  And to avoid what some industry types call “the scarlet letter” of a Prop. 65 warning, many manufacturers have reformulated their products to get rid of any chemical listed under Prop. 65.

The list of reformulations is long … very long. That’s not surprising, considering that California voters approved the law almost a quarter-century ago. And while there are plenty of products that carry Prop. 65 labels – either on the shelves at the supermarket, in the case of balsamic vinegar (lead), on the fresh fish display, in the case of swordfish and fresh tuna (mercury), on the packaging, as in the case of leaded crystal – there are scores of products that have been reformulated in the wake of Prop. 65 and thus are free of the familiar warning.

Products that have removed lead include: cords for electronics, vinyl lunchboxes and backpacks, children’s jewelry, Mexican candy, brass faucets, ceramic ware, calcium supplements, water meters, water filters, galvanized and PVC pipe, crystal decanters, foil caps on wine bottles, brass keys, hand tools, exercise weights, raincoats, electrical tape, electrical cords and wires, bicycle cable locks, CD wallets, baby rash powders and creams, anti-diarrheal medicines, and hair dyes.
Others chemicals that have been removed from specific products include mercury from hemorrhoidal creams and nasal sprays; trichloroethylene from correction fluid; perchloroethylene from cleaning fluid; methyl chloride from paint strippers and shoe waterproofing spray; toluene and formaldehyde from nail care products; coal tar from dandruff shampoos; arsenic from bottled water and playground structures; formaldehyde from portable classrooms; and phthalates from modeling clay.

Then there are the companies that are fundamentally changing the way they do business as a result of Prop. 65 litigation. For example, Laidlaw Transit used to take children to school in its diesel-powered buses. By 2014, the company will have converted its entire fleet to natural gas, rather than post signs on the door warning children (and their concerned parents) that they are being exposed to toxic diesel fumes. Obviously, this is far better, not only for the young passengers but also for air quality in general.

In some ways, Prop. 65 is a precursor of Green Chemistry, in that its goal is to push replacement of toxic chemicals with safer alternatives. The fact that private individuals, as well as public prosecutors, can enforce Prop. 65 is an asset; the fact that the response is merely a warning is a potential weakness. In practice, though, it appears that most companies would rather reformulate than warn, so the result has been an overall decrease in the use of toxic chemicals in everyday products.

If Prop. 65 becomes obsolete, it will be after 30 years of reducing Californians’ exposure to toxic chemicals. Given the weakness of chemical regulation in the United States, few laws can make that claim.

Pamela King Palitz is Environmental Health Advocate and Staff Attorney for Environment California

Comments on this post

Pam: Thanks for writing about Proposition 65. If your readers want more information on the unique California law they should go to www.prop65clearinghouse.com for the latest news. We are also having our Prop. 65 Annual Conference Monday, September 20 in San Francisco. Lana Beckett, Publisher