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Benzene: Case Study on Effect of Prop. 65

October 30, 1986|PAUL JACOBS | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Wherever there are cars there is benzene, a chemical known to cause cancer in laboratory animals and linked to leukemia in humans as well.

For a decade, federal and state regulators have struggled with the problem of exposure to the chemical, a component of gasoline that is found in vehicle exhaust and the air that most Califo1919838561enough to add between 1,900 and 14,000 cases of cancer over 70 years, according to an estimate by the state Department of Health Services.

Benzene is one of the most ubiquitous of a relatively small number of chemicals that would be initially affected by Proposition 65, the anti-toxics initiative on next Tuesday's ballot. While its economic importance means that it is hardly typical of the affected543385701illustration of how Proposition 65 would work and what the initiative's impact might be.

If the ballot measure passes, the governor would have to prepare lists of chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects. A listed chemical would not necessarily be banned, but the initiative would limit the amount businesses could discharge into drinking water sources and require warnings whenever the public is exposed to significant quantities.

The opposing sides in the debate on Proposition 65 have widely divergent views of the impact of the measure on California business and agriculture. They are also at odds on how the initiative would affect more than 200 other chemicals on the measure's initial list of cancer-causing substances compiled by two respected scientific groups, the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Of all the chemicals on this initial list, benzene may well be the most important. It has a great variety of uses, as a solvent and as a chemical building block for a host of other materials. But it also is dangerous; studies have shown that workers exposed to benzene have an increased risk of developing leukemia.

The general public also is exposed to benzene, chiefly from automobile exhaust that contains low but significant levels of the chemical. Motor vehicles account for 93% of the 21,400 tons of benzene spewed into the air in California each year. The levels in California cities are high enough that the Air Resources Board has agreed to a plan that would cut air emissions of benzene in half by the year 2000 in an effort to reduce the risk of cancer.

Proposition 65 would add to the penalties that a business would face for deliberately releasing significant amounts of benzene into sources of drinking water. Benzene contamination of drinking water has been a problem, particularly in Los Angeles County, where a recently completed survey of large water districts found seven contaminated wells.

The initiative would place the burden on businesses to show that the amounts released into water do not add to the risk of cancer, unless the state sets safe amounts by regulation. If the measure passes, most businesses that handle listed chemicals are expected to seek the legal protection that state regulation provides.

But the key issue for benzene and other chemicals would be determination by state agencies or the courts of what level of release constitutes an acceptable risk. (State health officials already have guidelines for permissible levels of benzene in drinking water, but not enforceable standards.)

If the limits are strict, several Proposition 65 opponents say, the effect would be drastic. "You'll have to alter the formula for gasoline if (benzene) is a significant risk, or you won't be able to produce it," said John Hunter, a lobbyist for the California Manufacturers Assn. "I don't know where the line will be drawn."

'Have to Be Strict'

One of the authors of the initiative, Environmental Defense Fund attorney David B. Roe, believes that the limits will have to be strict. Oil companies, he said, "are purveying huge amounts of a known carcinogen."

At the very least, Roe said, the ballot measure would force gasoline producers to alert the public to the dangers of benzene starting in March, 1988, when the warning requirements for listed chemicals would take effect. "It seems reasonable to me that . . . oil companies give a clear and reasonable warning about benzene," Roe said.

The opposition argues that even when industry would be allowed to continue to work with suspect chemicals, the measure would require a babble of warnings--so many that their messages would be lost on a confused public.

However, Michael Gagan, manager of the No on 65 campaign, conceded that industry could live with the measure's warning requirements.

And Hunter, along with other opponents, agrees that only a few of the chemicals on the initial list are likely to cause problems for industry.

Formaldehyde Example

Among those that could prove difficult is formaldehyde, a chemical found in particle board and plywood, as well as in vehicle exhaust.

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