Let's take ourselves back to the mid 1980s. Time Magazine had just named the personal computer "Machine of the Year." Parents were fighting in toy store aisles over Cabbage Patch Dolls. Madonna was just setting off on "The Virgin Tour" for the very first time.
Also high on everyone's minds were environmental concerns. Since the publication of environmental scientist Rachel Carson's Silent Spring twenty years prior, awareness of the environmental effects of chemicals was spreading—and nowhere more so than in California. Santa Clara county was in the process of designating 23 active superfund sites (the technical term for a contaminated area used as a dumping ground for toxic waste) and the groundwater in North Hollywood had just been determined to be contaminated by two superfund sites in the San Fernando valley. Citizens wanted accountability and protection—and they wanted those demands to start at the governmental level.
In 1986, California’s “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act” was voted in. Heavily championed by celebrities including Jane Fonda, Chevy Chase, and Rob Lowe, among others, it demanded radical transparency and immediate improvements from companies large and small. For the first time, the burden of proof would be on them to show that their products and their effects were safe; no more waiting to see if troubling health dots connected in hindsight. It was a win for the citizens of the state and a blow to corporations making millions off the haphazard use and disuse of toxic chemicals.
Proposition 65, as it became known, strictly regulated two things: what could and could not be dumped into the groundwater; and the mandate of a warning label on any product, good, or service that might expose the consumer to one of hundreds of chemicals in levels above the state’s newly established Safe Harbor levels.
But not for long, its legislators hoped! The way they saw it, fewer and fewer warning labels would be needed as companies decided to clean up their acts and remove the toxic chemicals from their products and establishments. Because the end goal wasn't the warnings, of course, it was a clean, nontoxic consumer world.
In some cases, a chemical reckoning and removal is exactly what happened. But a stroll through any California town (or a quick glance at the store shelves of retail outlets across the country) will show that these warnings have hardly faded off into the sunset. If anything, they're more prevalent than ever before. What happened?