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Right on, California

PEOPLE have a right to know what's in what they're buying. They also have a right to untainted drinking water. Such straightforward assertions lie behind California's Proposition 65, a law that clamps tight restrictions on the use of toxic chemicals. The statute, voted in by 63 percent of the state's citizens two years ago, takes full effect this year.

Proposition 65 turns the adage, ``let the buyer beware,'' on its head. And when it comes to the complexities of modern manufacturing - everything from cereal to electronics gear - that's where the adage probably belongs. The law demands that the makers and sellers of products containing specified amounts of chemicals identified by the state as toxic give the public ``clear and reasonable warning.''

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This puts a load - in time, effort, worry, and dollars - on the shoulders of businesses, whether heavy industries or the corner drugstore or hardware store.

But that's less grievous, ultimately, than keeping millions of customers and workers from making informed choices about what they buy and where they work.

A second part of the law, prohibiting the discharge of detectable amounts of toxic chemicals into the drinking water supply, takes effect this October.

Predictably, implementation of Proposition 65 is bringing a gale of protest from some in the business community who see it as a burdensome regulation. It's also bringing new vigor to the whole arena of environmental legislation and is likely to spawn similar approaches elsewhere.

What Californians have wrought is fundamentally a public information law. Initially there'll certainly be confusion as warnings proliferate and businesses test the boundaries of the law.

The ultimate test, perhaps, will be whether consumers move toward those products with ingredients that don't have toxic properties, much as they left saccharin for other sweeteners. If that happens, market forces could play a major role in removing hazardous chemicals from the environment, as buyers, then sellers, choose non-toxic options.

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