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No on Toxics Initiative

Ideally, California law would not allow any amount of any chemical that causes cancer or birth defects to get into the state’s drinking water supplies, or even into potential supplies--and the law would be enforced. But this is not an ideal world. And, reluctantly, The Times urges Californians to vote no on Proposition 65, the proposed Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.

We say reluctantly, because the goal of the initiative measure on the Nov. 4 election ballot is a commendable one. The aim of the sponsors is to clamp severe restrictions on manufacturers and users of chemicals to prevent any potentially dangerous levels of substances known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity to reach water supplies. The measure also would require such substances to be clearly marked with warnings so that those exposed to these chemicals would be aware of the potential risks to their health.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with citizen-initiated ballot propositions, the initiative has flaws that raise serious questions about its implementation in a rational, orderly fashion if adopted by the voters.

To be sure, the potential problems would not approach the grossly exaggerated levels predicted by the anti-Proposition 65 campaign, led by oil and chemical companies and the agriculture industry. Passage of Proposition 65 will not lead to the banning of ordinary table salt or require warning labels on every apple sold or cup of coffee served in California. It will not destroy California’s farming economy.

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But given the level of scientific understanding of toxics today, the restrictions are too inflexible and the timetables too rigid for establishing the extensive lists of offending chemicals and the levels of safety at which they can be used. Chemicals for which no safe or unsafe level has been established would be banned unless the manufacturer or user could prove an absence of risk.

Also questionable is the “bounty hunter” provision that allows any citizen to bring suit against alleged polluters if legal authorities have not brought action within a specified period, and then collecting a portion of civil or criminal penalties assessed. The way to punish polluters is not to impose frontier justice, but to equip law enforcement authorities with the toxics-age tools needed to do the job diligently.

One cancer death or birth defect is too many. But it is not yet possible, in this complex world, to provide a society free of any risk--at least within the strict parameters dictated by Proposition 65. As tough as the rules would be on carcinogens, they would be even stronger for reproductive toxics, a term which has no precise scientific definition.

Proposition 65 deals with amounts of substances that are so minute they now can be detected in terms of parts per trillion . Unfortunately, the science of determining the health risk from these chemicals, or lack of a risk, is not as advanced as our ability to measure them.

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The people must be assured that their drinking water is safe.

The goal of scientists, environmental regulators and industry must be to prevent further contamination of drinking water supplies by any harmful substance. The new federal Safe Drinking Water Act makes considerable progress in that direction. The goal will not be achieved in reasonable legislative fashion by Proposition 65, however, and The Times urges Californians to vote no.


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