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Gillette Agrees to Remove Toxics From Its Paper Correction Fluid

September 29, 1989|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The Gillette Co., quickly responding to a complaint filed under Proposition 65, announced Thursday that it will reformulate its Liquid Paper Correction Fluid to remove ingredients known to cause cancer or birth defects.

Under an agreement negotiated with environmentalists and Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, Gillette agreed to pay $300,000 in penalties and begin making a safe version of the correction fluid within four months.

The company will be permitted to continue marketing the hazardous product until Feb. 1 but must offer customers the chance to exchange bottles of the white-out fluid for a nontoxic version of the product. In addition, Gillette agreed to embark on a statewide advertising program warning of the hazard and alerting the public to safer alternatives.

"California consumers will be safer because of this agreement," Van de Kamp said. "Rather than simply warning people about how dangerous these chemicals are, Gillette is removing them from Liquid Paper."

Even with announcement of the settlement, however, Gillette continued to insist that its correction fluid is safe. "While the manufacturer of Liquid Paper admits no violation of Proposition 65, it intends to reformulate some products to avoid prolonged litigation and to eliminate further confusion and controversy," the firm said in a statement issued by a Sacramento public relations firm.

Most varieties of Liquid Paper contain the solvent trichloroethylene (TCE), a chemical identified by the state as a carcinogen. One version of the product also contains lead, a chemical known to cause birth defects.

Gillette makes two other types of white-out fluid that are water-based and do not contain either chemical: "Mistake Out" and "Just for Copies Opaquing Fluid." But company officials said the water-based products are not as effective because they do not dry as quickly.

Under Proposition 65, businesses must provide a "clear and reasonable warning" if they expose members of the public to chemicals that pose a "significant risk" of cancer or birth defects. Each violation of the law can bring a fine of up to $2,500 per day.

Gillette relied on a little-used toll-free telephone system to provide its warning under Proposition 65 that the correction fluid contained a chemical known to cause cancer. At the same time, the bottles of fluid bore the inscription: "Non-hazardous when used as directed."

Last month, a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled that the toll-free system--dubbed 800-BALONEY by its critics--did not satisfy the warning requirements of Proposition 65, leaving manufacturers who used the hot line system vulnerable to legal attack.

It was during the course of this lawsuit that Van de Kamp's office discovered that Liquid Paper contains TCE. Three weeks ago, a coalition of environmental groups filed a complaint seeking to make an example of Gillette for not providing a proper warning under the anti-toxics law.

"Here is one less risk for everybody to have to worry about, discovered and then eliminated by Proposition 65," said David Roe, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund and a co-author of the initiative. "We see this as only the beginning. All manufacturers will feel the same pressure to get rid of unnecessary toxic risks. It's a sign of a new force in the marketplace."

Roe said the coalition targeted Gillette because it is by far the largest manufacturer of correction fluid. Environmentalists did not investigate whether other brands of white-out fluid also contain TCE. But Roe said he expects makers of any products that do contain TCE to follow Gillette's lead and remove the chemical.

Under the terms of the settlement entered in San Francisco Superior Court, Gillette can face additional penalties of up to $1 million if it misses the Feb. 1 deadline for removing the hazardous substances from its products.

Like most chemicals found to cause cancer, TCE was identified as a carcinogen through tests on laboratory animals. A solvent used in many industries, it has been found to contaminate drinking water in some parts of the state. Lead has long been known to cause birth defects and retardation in children.

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