27 Chemicals Added to List of Toxics Under Prop. 65
Agreeing that testing of chemicals in experimental animals is a valid way of showing the risk of cancer or birth defects in humans, Gov. George Deukmejian’s panel of scientific advisers Thursday added 27 chemicals to the list of substances covered by Proposition 65, the anti-toxics initiative approved by voters last November.
Among the most commonplace substances that the scientists added to the list are several chemicals--with uncommon, tongue-twisting names such as benzo(a)pyrene and benzo(j)fluoranthene--found in engine exhaust as well as barbecued or broiled foods.
The panel also affirmed a decision by the state Health and Welfare Agency to add to the Proposition 65 list four other substances, including acrylonitrile, an industrial chemical widely used in the production of plastics and rubber products.
First Concrete Signs
The actions are the first concrete signs that the Deukmejian Administration, after a tentative start, intends to apply the popular ballot measure to a broad number of widely used chemicals. The moves seemed to end a debate Deukmejian started last February when he initially listed only chemicals proven to cause cancer in humans.
Listing is crucial to the implementation of Proposition 65, because only substances on the list are covered by the measure’s warning requirements and limits on dumping of toxic chemicals into the state drinking water supplies.
But even before the scientists began their chemical-by-chemical review of hundreds of substances, which will take many months to complete, the Deukmejian Administration had discussed granting broad exemptions to Proposition 65’s warning requirements for substances that occur naturally in food or are the result of ordinary cooking.
Unless an exemption for cooking is adopted, for example, restaurants might have to warn consumers of the potential danger of a broiled steak or charcoal-grilled fish, both of which contain at least some benzo(a)pyrene.
The scientific panel also listed methyl mercury, an industrial chemical that causes severe birth defects, and Accutane, an anti-acne drug shown to cause malformations in the infants of women treated during pregnancy.
However, many of the panel’s most far-reaching decisions about which chemicals ought to be covered still lie ahead. For example, the scientists put off until their next meeting, scheduled for August, a recommendation endorsed by at least five of its 11 members that alcohol be included on the Proposition 65 list. If the panel accepts that recommendation, it could lead to warning labels on alcoholic beverages sold in California, an action bitterly opposed by the state’s wine, beer and hard liquor industries.
Warn of Exposure
Under Proposition 65, businesses must warn consumers of exposure to significant amounts of a chemical 12 months after it is formally added by the governor to the required list. Twenty months after a substance is listed, businesses are barred from discharging unsafe amounts into the state’s drinking water supplies. Firms that fail to comply face the possibility of citizens lawsuits and $2,500-per-day fines for each violation.
“The only question is not what is added but when,” said one Health and Welfare Agency official, referring to the controversy over Deukmejian’s decision to limit the list initially to 29 substances known to cause cancer or birth defects in humans, rather than an additional 200 chemicals or so that Proposition 65’s authors contend are required by the initiative.
Accepting the arguments of environmental and labor groups that the governor was required to list additional chemicals at the outset, a Sacramento Superior Court ordered Deukmejian to add 201 substances to the Proposition 65 list. However, Deukmejian has appealed that decision.
But the governor asked the scientific panel to review many of the same suspect substances and said that he would accept the group’s recommendations. Deukmejian argued that voters wanted protection from chemicals that represent a threat to human health and that only scientists, and “not politicians or actors,” could determine what the animal studies meant to people.
At their meeting Thursday, the scientists formally agreed to follow a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policy that accepts the results of animal experiments in determining likely health effects in humans, even when evidence in humans is weak or absent.
And the committee’s chairman, University of California, Davis, professor Wendell Kilgore, produced a list of more than 50 chemicals for which there is enough evidence in animals or humans, under the EPA standards, to indicate a potential risk to the public.
Among those chemicals, to be considered at future meetings of the scientific panel, are a number of widely used pesticides. So is perchloroethylene, a common dry cleaning solvent.
In their deliberations, the scientists expressed considerable reservations about Proposition 65, which seemed to leave them with little choice but to approve adding chemicals, even in cases where exposure might represent little risk.
‘Label on Virtually Everything’
At one point, toxicologist F. J. Murray complained that listing every chemical that in high doses is harmful to an unborn fetus would require listing thousands of substances, and each would require a warning to consumers. “What good is it to put a label on virtually everything?” he asked.
On the other hand, environmental groups that supported Proposition 65 are concerned that the scientists will not include each of more than 200 substances that are referred to indirectly in the measure itself.
And they also are concerned that the Health and Welfare Agency, in writing rules to implement the measure, will grant broad exemptions that blunt the law’s intent.
Earlier this week, the state agency held a series of meetings to discuss a number of possible exemptions to the measure, including a proposed exemption for naturally occurring substances in food and those that result from cooking.
During last fall’s campaign, opponents argued that the measure would require warning labels on peanut butter and corn oil, because those products often contain significant amounts of aflatoxins, contaminants caused by a fungus when grains or nuts are stored under humid conditions.
The scientific panel will consider whether aflatoxins should be listed as causing cancer when it meets again in August, but the Health and Welfare Agency’s proposed exemption could make that action meaningless.
And that angers environmentalists. “Why not warn people?” asked the Sierra Club’s Bettina Redway. “People should know what’s in their peanut butter.”