Warning signs that will be posted this week in gas stations, supermarkets and neighborhoods to notify people that they may be exposed to cancer-causing chemicals were unveiled Monday by a statewide business coalition.
But the warning notices, which are required under Proposition 65, were quickly branded by sponsors of the anti-toxics initiative as so vague that they are unlikely to satisfy the requirements of the new law.
Leaders of the business coalition also undercut the message of their own signs by declaring that the posting of a warning will not necessarily mean the public is being exposed to hazardous chemicals.
"It's important that people understand that a warning simply means that one of these chemicals is present," said Michele Corash, attorney for the business coalition that calls itself the Environmental Working Group. "They should not assume that it means that the product or the area is dangerous."
Under Proposition 65, businesses that employ 10 or more people must warn members of the public if they expose them to chemicals that pose a "significant risk" of causing cancer or birth defects. The initiative, which was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1986, also says the warnings given by businesses must be "clear and reasonable."
The warning requirements take effect Saturday for the first 29 chemicals listed by the state as causing birth defects or cancer, including benzene, which is found in gasoline, and asbestos, an insulating material present in many buildings.
One sign made public by the coalition and designed for gas stations and oil refineries reads: "Warning: Detectable amounts of chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm may be found in and around this facility."
Another sign that will be posted in supermarkets says: "Proposition 65 requires that Californians be warned about products containing chemicals known to the State to cause cancer or birth defects. To obtain this information on consumer products sold in California, please call 1-800-431-6565."
Environmentalist backers of Proposition 65 criticized these warnings, saying they are so general they would not provide a clear and reasonable warning when there is a chemical exposure that poses a significant risk to the public.
"They are trying to make these as soft, unfocused and as ambiguous as possible," said David Roe, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund and a principal co-author of the initiative.
"The law says, tell people when they are exposed to significant amounts, not when they may be exposed to detectable amounts," he said. "They (businesses) are trying not to do what the law wants: Separate out significant risks and tell people about them."
Corash, who was a leader in the 1986 campaign against Proposition 65, acknowledged that many companies will be giving warnings under the law even though they may be unnecessary.
The goal of these firms, she said, is to avoid costly lawsuits and large penalties. Under the law, businesses that do not provide warnings can face fines of up to $2,500 a day for each exposure. But if a court finds that proper warnings are posted, businesses would not be subjected to these fines.
"A number of businesses have just concluded that the cost of litigating and the risk of litigating is not something they want to undertake," Corash told reporters at a Los Angeles press conference.
Corash contended that it is difficult for businesses to define what would pose a significant risk under the law. "There's a great deal of confusion on the issue of significant risk," she said.
Last week, however, the Deukmejian Administration went a long ways toward clearing up that confusion when it published emergency regulations to implement the initiative.
Among other things, the regulations set specific safety levels for all of the widely used chemicals on the list of 29 substances. Any exposure above those levels would pose a significant risk under the law, state officials said.
In addition to warning signs, the business coalition said companies will use newspaper ads, direct mail notices and toll-free hot lines to provide Proposition 65 warnings.
A plan by the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. to set up a toll-free warning system in supermarkets has drawn considerable criticism from environmental and consumer groups. Calling the hot line 800-BALONEY, critics say it will do little to give shoppers advance warning of the hazards they face from specific products.
Consumer groups would prefer that manufacturers put warning labels on all products that pose a known danger to public health.