Proposition 65 and Your Daily Brush With Death?

Andy Caldwell
COLAB Executive Director, guest editorialist, and radio talk show host

I was once an Industrial Relations and Safety Manager.  My job included  handling all the regulations pertaining to hazardous chemicals used at our facility.  In California, every business is required to have on hand a material safety data sheet (MSDS) for each and every product with any ingredient listed as hazardous under Prop. 65.

Proposition 65, passed by voters in 1986, was meant to protect citizens from exposure to harmful chemicals via a system of warning notices, and penalties for dangerous exposures and unauthorized releases.  Today, that list includes over 800 chemicals and the list grows each and every year.  Unfortunately, over time, the effort to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals has become a parody and burden with limited and even negative benefits to consumers.

As an example of the absurdity of the law, I had to train our factory workers about the dangers of sand.  I had a seven page long MSDS sheet on sand.  That is because sand can pose a inhalation risk if it is used in a sandblaster.  But, here is how Prop. 65, good intentions notwithstanding, went awry.  I had to label sand as dangerous and train our workers as to the hazards even though we were not using the sand in a sandblasting operation.  We were primarily using sand, in a non-hazardous way, to mix with cement in order to make concrete!

Moreover, the tests manufacturers must use to avoid being sued by private sector attorneys for Prop. 65 violations are ridiculous.  They subject rats to extreme exposure levels in laboratory settings using what is referred to as the maximum tolerated dose in order to determine toxicity levels.  What does this mean?  They expose the rat to a level of exposure just short of a lethal dose and on that basis, determine if the chemical presents any risks.  Then they extrapolate the data as if to suggest the same chemical exposure presents a toxic threat to humans.  However, the whole test is flawed because no human could possibly ever be exposed to the same levels of toxicity as the rat in the laboratory setting.  The tests typically project 70 years of continued, maximum exposure to full scale contact or ingestion with a chemical, whereas, in reality, no human can realistically expect to be exposed to anything more than a trace amount in the course of their lifetime.

The truth?  The dose makes the poison.  For example, one aspirin is good for heart health, two make a headache go away, but taking twenty aspirin is lethal.  Did you know that table salt is toxic?  So is toothpaste!  To learn the horrors of your daily brush with death, read the fine print warning on your tube about swallowing toothpaste!  Of course, even drinking water is toxic!  Virtually anything in excess can be toxic and that is exactly the point that Prop. 65 fails to recognize.

Here in California, we have now begun to ban beneficial chemicals that actually preserve public health because manufacturers are afraid to get sued over trace amounts of chemicals that present no harm whatsoever to consumers.

Governor Brown is right to say Proposition 65 needs to be amended.  Let’s hope he has more success in this endeavor than he did in reforming CEQA!

Andy Caldwell is a guest editorialist with the Santa Barbara News Press, the Executive Director of COLAB, and the host of the Andy Caldwell Radio Show.  This column first appeared in the Santa Barbara News Press.  For more information visit www.colabsbc.org.

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