SACRAMENTO — Beginning next month, shoppers in California are likely to see signs posted in supermarkets warning that the products they buy may contain chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects.
At some gas stations, motorists can expect to see signs saying that exposure to gasoline and its vapors can cause cancer or reproductive harm. At oil refineries, chemical plants, electronics firms and factories, posters are likely to go up advising neighbors that emissions into the air could pose similar dangers.
First Visible Results
Such warnings to the public would be among the first visible results of Proposition 65, the anti-toxics initiative overwhelmingly approved by the voters in November, 1986. On Feb. 27, the initiative's warning requirements will take effect for the first time for 29 chemicals and other substances, affecting a broad array of businesses and industries throughout the state.
At this point, however, business leaders say many companies are confused and uncertain about how to follow Proposition 65.
Under the measure, businesses are prohibited from exposing members of the public to chemicals that are known to cause cancer or birth defects without first providing a "clear and reasonable warning." Businesses are exempt from the warning requirement if they can show that the exposure does not pose a "significant risk." What poses a significant risk remains the biggest question.
The state is still drafting final regulations that would specify when warnings will be required and what kinds of warnings will be acceptable. These will be issued as emergency regulations before Feb. 27, state officials said.
"Businesses are in sheer panic," said John Hunter, a lobbyist for the California Manufacturers Assn. "Nobody has any real firm idea of what to do."
Chemical manufacturers, high technology companies, newspapers, hospitals, building owners and hundreds of other businesses and manufacturers are debating whether to provide warnings and, if so, what form they should take. Initially, Proposition 65 may prompt a flood of unnecessary warnings from businesses seeking to make certain that they are not forced to pay large penalties for violating the measure. At the same time, some companies, out of ignorance or defiance, may disregard the initiative altogether.
"I expect early waves of overwarning and underwarning as people get used to the law," said David Roe, a principal author of Proposition 65. "But I expect that after a short shakeout period, we'll be down to only the real situations that need warnings."
Depending on the final content of the state's regulations, spokesmen for the grocery manufacturers and oil companies said, they could alter their plans for issuing warnings.
The two industries are planning independent warning programs that would include signs, newspaper advertising campaigns and toll-free telephone numbers to give members of the public detailed information about specific chemicals.
In supermarkets, the signs would be targeted primarily at non-food items. But the signs themselves would not make that clear, instead offering a generalized warning that could be interpreted as applying to any item in the store, said a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Assn.
Of the 29 chemicals and substances that will be affected by the Feb. 27 deadline, seven appear to be of the most concern to California businesses: benzene, arsenic, asbestos, lead, vinyl chloride, chromium and ethylene oxide. The remainder of the 29 are either used on a limited basis or have been banned.
However, those seven are so commonplace that nearly every major industry in the state faces the question of whether they should provide warnings under Proposition 65 for at least one substance.
Benzene, for example, is a component of gasoline, oil, solvents and other petroleum-based products. It occurs naturally at low levels in many kinds of food. And it is present in the air throughout the state, primarily because it is emitted in motor vehicle exhaust.
Asbestos Widely Used
Asbestos, widely used as a fireproofing material between World War II and the late 1970s, is present in an estimated 60% of commercial buildings in the state, according to the state Assembly Office of Research. Proposition 65 could change the nature of the ongoing debate over asbestos by requiring building owners to warn occupants in cases where asbestos fibers in the air present a significant health risk.
Evidence that asbestos, benzene and the other 27 chemicals cause cancer or birth defects is based primarily on studies of exposure in the workplace, in prescription drugs or in other situations where levels are significantly higher than those normally encountered in everyday living. The question of what levels of exposure pose risks to humans is usually answered with evidence from tests on laboratory animals.