Passed by voters in 1986, Proposition 65 sought to shield the state's water supply from contamination and to protect consumers by requiring companies to post clear warnings about harmful chemicals in products.
The law has been "a resounding success" as a consumer safeguard, California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Matthew Rodriquez said in a conference call with reporters today. But he said the time has come to amend the law, citing a proliferation of "abusive" profit-seeking lawsuits and scientific strides that make some of the standards set 27 years ago obsolete.
"It's not an unqualified success," Rodriquez said on the call. "Unfortunately, it has been abused in the past by those who have essentially used it to shake down small businesses and generate fees by bringing cases with little or no benefit to public health."
In criticizing those who exploit Proposition 65 for profit, the Brown administration is aligning itself with a push in the Legislature to limit lawsuits that target, for example, restaurants that haven't posted signs warning customers about the hazards of alcohol consumption. Rodriquez said administration officials have spoken with lawmakers. He pointed to "the interest in the Legislature" and to a bill by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, as the impetus for working to amend Proposition 65. The administration hasn't yet identified a lawmaker who might carry the bill.
"It's not every day a piece of your legislation sparks a statewide reform effort," Gatto said in a statement. "I'm thrilled that the governor is engaging on this issue and would be honored to work with him."
Rodriquez offered a few different ways to crack down on attorneys who sue businesses over failing to post adequate Proposition 65 warnings, including capping attorney fees or requiring plaintiffs to show stronger evidence that a business is in violation.
Companies are required to put up warnings about products that contain above a certain level of chemicals California categorizes as harmful. Some of those thresholds are out of date, Rodriquez said -- currently, a business is exempted from needing to post a warning if a given chemical is present in a concentration 1,000 times below the level at which the chemical is known to cause observable effects in humans.
"This level can be unrealistically low for some chemicals," Rodriquez said. "It's our sense in talking to our scientists here in the state that these warnings are unnecessary and cause undue litigation so we want to bring some realism into the warning level requirements."
As businesses have sought to comply with Proposition 65, the number of posted warnings has multiplied to the point that critics say the warnings have become near-ubiquitous. Rodriquez said the administration is looking at ways to make the signs contain more information about what chemicals are present and how people can avoid exposure.
"These blanket warnings dilute the very purpose of the warning," he said.
Tom Scott, executive director of the organization California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, called the governor's decision to insert himself into the debate a "game-changer."
"To have him weigh in from the executive branch to clearly say there's an abuse going on here, I think it's huge," Scott said.
PHOTO CREDIT: Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D- Los Angeles, leaves a hearing on Aug. 23, 2011. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli