THE federal government phased out the use of lead in gasoline and household paint twenty years ago, but it is still present in many products. Makers of china, water faucets, and calcium supplements have recently gone to great lengths to reduce the amount of lead they use. What is remarkable is that these efforts are not the usual attempts to avoid stiff penalties associated with new federal rules. Instead they are a response to a California law that requires companies to provide information to the public about practices that remain perfectly legal. Corporations all over the country are feeling the effects of an increasingly powerful but unheralded government policy tool: mandatory disclosure.
In 1986 California voters approved by a margin of two to one a ballot initiative that required companies to give "clear and reasonable warning" whenever they exposed people to cancer-causing chemicals or substances toxic to the reproductive system in amounts above levels set by the state. The law, known as Proposition 65, prompted few such warnings. But it did inspire a flurry of efforts by nationally known companies -- faced with public humiliation if accused of failing to warn consumers -- to reduce the public's exposure to lead and other toxins. Ten china companies agreed to cut the amount of lead in their glazes by half. Fourteen major plumbing-supply manufacturers agreed to produce brass faucets that were virtually lead-free. Ten producers of calcium supplements agreed to reduce the amount of lead in their tablets to almost nothing. Pet, Inc., a major food processor, sped up its elimination of lead solder from cans of Old El Paso chili gravy and Progresso tomatoes.
Other large companies also made rapid changes. Gillette removed a carcinogen, trichloroethylene, from Liquid Paper. Suppliers to Sears, Roebuck reformulated car wax and carburetor cleaner. Dow Chemical took a carcinogen out of its K2r spot remover. Kiwi Brands, a division of Sara Lee, reformulated a waterproofing spray for shoes to remove another carcinogen.