Rectifying a Toxic Mistake

A sponsor of Proposition 65, the 1986 Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, says that voter approval of the complex, controversial measure created a year of panic followed by a year of acceptance. The major remaining resistance comes from the national food industry, says David Roe of the Environmental Defense Fund. And now Roe and his allies are enjoying a major legal victory over that foe.

The victory was well-deserved. The grocers' attempt to circumvent the law by creating a toll-free telephone information center clearly was not within the Proposition 65 requirement that products carry a "clear and reasonable" label if they contained significant amounts of suspected carcinogen or a substance likely to cause birth defects. It certainly was not within the spirit of the law, which is to give consumers the information they need to make rational decisions about the relative risk of the items they ingest or use in daily life.

Shoppers calling the Ingredient Communication Council hot line could not get a list of all products coming under Proposition 65. Rather, they had to ask about each specific product and then be told whether it contained any suspect chemicals.

What sort of warning would suffice? It is unclear, but a store might post a symbol in a prominent place and note that any item so marked was covered under Proposition 65. This would not be as unwieldy as Proposition 65 critics contend. All food and drug items certified by the federal government are exempt from labeling for the time being. That leaves only about 500 items, including some 300 brands of tobacco products and shoe polish, Roe said.

And is Proposition 65 achieving some of the goals the sponsors sought? Yes indeed. Roe cited the fact that lead solder no longer is used in the manufacturer of food product cans that are in use in California. Proposition 65 still is a very cumbersome law, but it can be reasonably effective if it is reasonably interpreted and reasonably enforced.

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