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Furniture guilty until proven innocent in California.


Being coerced to post cancer warnings near furniture displays might be viewed as bad for business. Yet, rather than fight a private attorney's challenge to do just that, many major California retailers recently began displaying signs stating, "WARNING: Products made with particleboard contain chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer or other reproductive harm."

The chief suspect in this case is formaldehyde, which is the principal chemical for resins used in the manufacture of not only particleboard, but also MDF, plywood, and other man-made substrates. Formaldehyde is one of more than 90 chemicals and compounds on the state's list of known hazardous substances. The list also includes arsenic, asbestos, benzene and lead.

In issuing his challenge, the attorney cited a section of California's Proposition 65, which states: "No person in the course of doing business shall knowingly and intentionally expose any individual to a chemical known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity without first giving clear and reasonable warning to such individual."

The intent of Proposition 65 is well and good. The public has every right to be informed about imminent safety and health hazards. But posting warnings without having evidence to substantiate the risk is akin to crying wolf.

A flawed proposition

A major flaw of Proposition 65 is that it puts the burden of proof exclusively on the defendant. Thus, to successfully challenge the need for cancer warnings in court, retailers would have to prove that furniture made with particleboard does not pose a serious health threat.

On the face of it, that would seem easy enough to do. Over the past two decades numerous scientific inquiries have been made into formaldehyde's health effects. Some have found circumstantial evidence to suggest that long-term, large-dose exposures to formaldehyde might lead to certain types of cancer. Still, no study has suggested that trace amounts of formaldehyde, such as that found in particleboard, pose a cancer threat.

For the moment, at least, most of the retailers believe it is wiser and cheaper to put up the signs than to fight. Many of them report no change in business because Californians are growing numb to the continuing proliferation of cancer warnings spurred by Proposition 65. Besides, if they lost their case in court, they could each be fined up to $2,500 a day for violating the disclosure rule, 25 percent of which would be paid to the Berkeley attorney who instigated proceedings under Proposition 65's so-called "bounty hunter" clause.

Today it's particleboard that is "on trial," but tomorrow it might be wood finishes or adhesives made with formaldehyde that are challenged. Then what? A multitude of consumer products, including permanent-press cotton clothes, detergents, cosmetics, deodorants, shampoo and milk also contain formaldehyde.

A year ago I gave up cigarette smoking primarily because I came to the conclusion that I agreed with the Surgeon General's health warning. I don't need further evidence to convince me that smoking is bad for my health, but it will take a lot more evidence to convince me that I should part with my kitchen cabinets and home entertainment unit.
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Title Annotation:a view of Californian legislation which means that health warnings have to be placed next to furniture containing formaldehyde
Author:Christianson, Rich
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Article Type:editorial
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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