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A legislator's lighthearted write-your-own-law contest has led to a serious bill to protect animals and kids from antifreeze poisoning

Wednesday, Mar 27 2002
Almost six months after announcing his "There Oughta Be a Law" contest ("Lawmaker for a Day," Dog Bites, Sept. 19, 2001), Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) still couldn't decide which of the nearly 100 proposals submitted by his constituents was the best idea for a new state statute.

So he picked three. And although Simitian says the winners -- who get lunch with the assemblyman, a California flag, and the chance to testify in support of their bill -- pitched the most politically and economically feasible ideas, his sentimental favorite was a suggestion to outlaw the overlay of advertising that runs down the side of the Sunday comics.

"I don't know if he was pulling my leg or what," Simitian says of his constituent who proposed the law. "But now I think of him every time I open the Sunday paper."

In the end, Simitian chose three ideas that he says "all face significant hurdles but are fundamentally sound on a policy basis." The first, suggested by employees of the nonprofit environmental group Acterra, would establish a policy to use the least toxic alternatives to pesticides and herbicides for state facilities such as office buildings, parks, and roads. The second, from Andrea Leiderman of Mountain View, would require a store or restaurant that declared bankruptcy to honor any gift certificates it has issued. And the third, proposed by Cupertino resident Lauren Ward, would require manufacturers of antifreeze sold in California to add a bittering agent to help prevent accidental poisonings of children and pets.

"There may be an uphill battle to pass these laws," says Simitian, who introduced the bills last month. "But I'm hopeful we can move one, if not all three, to the governor's desk."

One of the ideas, however, moved to the governor's desk nine years ago -- and was promptly vetoed.

In 1993, Democrat Jack O'Connell (then an assemblyman, now a state senator) introduced a bill to add a bittering agent, denatonium benzoate, to antifreeze, which animals and children may be tempted to sip because of its sweet taste and appealing smell. Because most antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, a poisonous and odorless chemical, 1 or 2 ounces can kill a child, and one or two licks can kill a pet. Proponents of the bittering agent -- which can be added to antifreeze at a cost of two or three cents a gallon -- argued that it would compel a child or pet to spit out the liquid, avoiding ingestion. But then-Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed O'Connell's bill, saying that the effectiveness of denatonium benzoate had not been properly studied and would not decrease the number of exposures to antifreeze.

Almost a decade later, that's still the argument used by the antifreeze lobby, which has protested vehemently -- and effectively -- whenever state legislatures have raised the issue. Although the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia all require harsh-tasting antifreeze, only Oregon has passed such a law in the United States. Most recently, Massachusetts state Rep. Stephen Kulik introduced a bill in each of the past two legislative sessions, only to see it defeated both times.

"Drawing up legislation is difficult when you're dealing with a national product," says Kulik, who began researching the bittering agent after his dog died from lapping up some antifreeze in his neighborhood. "The national chemical companies immediately send folks into the Statehouse to weigh in against it, saying they can't make one product for Massachusetts and one for the rest of the country. It would be nice if they were responsible enough to do it for the rest of the country, but I think it's going to take several states coming together before that happens."

Enter Lauren Ward. A 39-year-old registered nurse, Ward, like Kulik, discovered antifreeze's deadly potential when her puppy licked up a few drops as she was locking her car. After an unsuccessful two-week battle to save the dog, Ward -- whose only previous political experience was speaking at her children's school district meetings -- began writing to dozens of California lawmakers, urging them to draft legislation. None of them responded, until she mentioned the idea to Simitian at an informal gathering he hosted for residents of his district. He told her about his contest, and Ward immediately began translating her idea into a proposal for a bill.

"From a little person's perspective, this allows you to feel like you can make a difference," Ward says. "It has to come from the people through their legislators, and then big business will have to listen. I don't know what the big hang-up is, honestly. Are we going to have to see kids poisoned before we get this?"

Yes, according to the antifreeze lobby. Bill Layfield, a spokesman for the Consumer Specialty Products Association, says his coalition of industry representatives opposes the bittering agent because there has never been an accidental child death from antifreeze poisoning in the United States. (Suicides, of course, are a different matter.) What's more, Layfield says, antifreeze already comes with child-resistant caps and foil seals.

"I'm not sure it's in the best interest of the consumer to create a false sense of security with this bittering agent," Layfield says. "If an incident results because a parent is careless because of this false sense of security, that could have a liability effect on the producers. We don't think this is good public policy."

The antifreeze lobby also argues that there hasn't been enough testing on the potential environmental impacts of the bittering agent -- a charge Massachusetts Rep. Kulik dismisses. "I can't imagine a small microdrop of some bittering agent would be more harmful than the gallon of toxic liquid it's being put into," he says.

Simitian and Ward know they're in for a fight. And although the bill sprang from an admittedly lighthearted contest (which Simitian plans to make an annual event), the assemblyman is serious about championing it in Sacramento -- with Ward looking on.

"There's a little bit of a different feel to it, in the sense that you have somebody rooting for you in a way you don't when you have a good idea of your own," Simitian says. "It's kind of like driving someone else's car -- you feel particularly careful and cautious. I feel an added sense of responsibility."

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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