Living with Toxic Substances

Be safe, not just forewarned.

By Kevin RR Williams

TOXICITY Whether or not you reside in California, under the OEHHA rules of Proposition 65 (Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986), you may come across an apartment or office building with a warning that dangerous chemicals are in use. Immediately, you may wonder if there's a toxic gas leak or if water pipes are contaminated. In most cases, there is no government agency you can phone to find out. Under Proposition 65, a long list of chemicals is updated annually. It is up to the property owner to identify offending elements and warn the public. Even though the proposition is somewhat self-governing, the penalty for offenses that come to the attention of authorities is steep.

"Any person who has violated Section 25249.5 or 25249.6 shall be liable for a civil penalty not to exceed two thousand five hundred dollars ($2500) per day for each violation in addition to any other penalty established by law." Therefore, despite potential embarrassment or tenant alarm, compliance to serve notice is warranted. Small businesses with fewer than 10 employees, governmental agencies, and public water systems are exempt from the warning requirement and discharge prohibition of Proposition 65.

What Could Be Lurking Beneath The Surface

The Proposition 65 list contains two types of chemicals: carcinogens, which can cause cancer, and reproductive toxicants, which cause birth defects or other reproductive harm, such as sterility or miscarriages. Some chemicals may be additives or ingredients in pesticides, common household products, food, or drugs. Others can be industrial chemicals, dyes, or solvents used in dry cleaning, manufacturing, and construction. Still others may be byproducts of chemical processes like motor vehicle exhaust.

One of the chemicals listed is airborne, breathable crystalline silica (dust). It can be found in sand, quartz, granite, concrete, cement, and stone and is still used in many industries ranging from construction to rubber and plastics to automotive repair. Generally silica is not a problem. Although it is everywhere, diseases caused by exposure to silica are not common. However, inhalation of crystalline silica can cause an incurable lung cancer called silicosis, and other diseases including tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease emphysema, and autoimmune diseases.

Asbestos was used in many more products than silica. Further, although silica is everywhere (for example on a beach), it is often too large to cause pulmonary problems. Medical criteria appear to be stricter for silica than for asbestos cases. Most of silica claims filed so far have been filed in Mississippi, Texas, and Ohio.

So if you are moving into a residence or seeking employment at a company with a warning sign posted, you won't know whether it refers to vehicle exhaust, silica particulates, solvents, aspirin, or pesticides unless you ask. If no sign is posted but you suspect toxicity, inquire which chemicals are in use to stay A Bit More Healthy.

Tags: carcinogenic, birth defects, oncology, pneumoconiosis, pulmonology

  1. Proposition 65.
  2. Chemicals Known to Cause Cancer or Reproductive Toxicity. (PDF)
  3. Is silica the new asbestos?
  4. Silicosis.