Alar and apples

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The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has been one of the leading voices behind stories about the "great Alar scare of 1989," a conservative fable that has been endlessly recycled by the mass media into a morality tale about the dangers of environmental fearmongering, government regulatory excess, and media irresponsibility.

A recent search of the NEXIS news database turned up nearly 5,000 references to the Alar affair. All but a handful treated the incident as a case of Chicken Little environmentalism, with headlines such as "Enviros Accused of Inciting Paranoia," "The Century of Science Scares," "The 60 Minutes Health Hoax," and "Pseudoscientific Hooey the Scare Tactic of Choice Nowadays." Thanks in large part to ACSH's efforts with journalists, the word Alar has become a near-universal shorthand for an irrational health scare stemming from "junk science."

Alar and regulatory inaction

Alar was a chemical, first marketed in 1968, that apple growers sprayed on trees to make their apples ripen longer before falling off. In use, however, Alar breaks down to a byproduct called "unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine" or UDMH. The first study showing that UDMH can cause cancer was published in 1973. Further studies published in 1977 and 1978 confirmed that Alar and UDMH caused tumors in laboratory animals.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened an investigation of Alar's hazards in 1980, but shelved the investigation after a closed meeting with Alar's manufacturer, the Uniroyal Chemical Company. In 1984, the EPA re-opened its investigation, concluding in 1985 that both Alar and UDMH were probable human carcinogens. Under pressure from Uniroyal, however, the EPA allowed Alar to stay on the market. Its use continued, even after tests by the National Food Processors Association and Gerber Baby Foods repeatedly detected Alar in samples of apple sauce and apple juice, including formulations for infants.

Consumers Union and environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) saw Alar as an example of a regulatory system that was not functioning properly. If Alar were a new chemical being considered for approval, it would not have been allowed on the market, but since it was already in use, getting it withdrawn ended up taking nearly a decade.

By 1989, the states of Massachusetts and New York had banned the chemical, and the American Academy of Pediatrics was urging a similar ban at the federal level. "Risk estimates based on the best available information at this time raise serious concern about the safety of continued, long-term exposure," stated an EPA letter to apple growers which estimated that 50 out of every million adults who ate apples on a regular basis would get cancer from long-term exposure to Alar -- in other words, 50 times the human health hazard considered "acceptable" by EPA standards. The danger to children, the letter warned, was even greater. Aside from these urgings, however, federal agencies continued to avoid regulatory action.

60 Minutes

On February 26, 1989, CBS-TV's 60 Minutes aired an exposé titled "A is for Apple," which became the opening salvo in a carefully-planned publicity campaign developed for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The NRDC is one of the handful of environmental groups that can afford to hire a public relations company, and it chose the firm of Fenton Communications, which developed and helped distribute public service announcements featuring actress Meryl Streep, who warned that Alar had been detected in apple juice bottled for children. An NRDC report, issued at the time of the 60 Minutes broadcast, stressed that risks to children were higher than to adults, because children consume far more apple products per pound of body weight.

The NRDC report focused on inconsistencies in government regulatory policies and the need for better policies to protect children. Nowhere did it suggest that eating a single apple or drinking a single glass of juice posed a significant risk. Nevertheless, the prominence of 60 Minutes and Streep's movie-star status helped produce a dramatic public reaction, as some mothers poured apple juice down sink drains and school lunchrooms removed apples from their menus.

The apple industry, its back to the wall, hastily abandoned its use of Alar, and the market for apples quickly rebounded. Within five years, in fact, growers' profits were 50 percent higher than they had been at the time of the 60 Minutes broadcast. Apple growers in Washington state filed a libel lawsuit against CBS, NRDC and Fenton Communications, claiming that the "scare" had cost them $100 million and sent orchards into bankruptcy, but their case was eventually dismissed. The judge who presided over the lawsuit pointed to failures in the federal government's food safety policies and noted that "governmental methodology fails to take into consideration the distinct hazards faced by preschoolers. The government is in grievous error when allowable exposures are calculated . . . without regard for the age at which exposure occurs."

Notwithstanding years of industry efforts to disprove the merits of NRDC's warning, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1993 confirmed the central message of the Alar case, which is that infants and young children need greater protection from pesticides. The NAS called for an overhaul of regulatory procedures specifically to protect kids, finding that federal calculations for allowable levels of chemicals do not account for increased childhood consumption of fruit, for children's lower body weight, or for their heightened sensitivity to toxic exposures.

"NRDC was absolutely on the right track when it excoriated the regulatory agencies for having allowed a toxic material to stay on the market for 25 years," stated Dr. Philip Landrigan, who chaired the NAS study committee. Subsequent reports by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Public Health Service also concurred that Alar is carcinogenic.

The risks of Alar

In and of itself, the Alar saga is only one fairly minor skirmish in a decades-long struggle between industry and environmental groups. What made it ideal fodder for conservative rhetoric is the relatively small size of the risk that Alar posed to consumers. Fifty cancers per million is not exactly terrifying by comparison with, for example, the one-in-three risk of premature death that comes from smoking cigarettes.

Consumers Union, in its 1989 report on the Alar issue, noted that its own tests on apples showed a lower cancer risk than the EPA's estimate -- only five cancers per million, instead of fifty. Consumers Union also advised parents that even with Alar, they were still better off feeding apples to their kids than candy bars. Nevertheless, it concluded, the chemical should be banned, because a risk of even five cancers per million is unacceptable.

This sort of nuance, however, does not translate well into the evening news. Reporters don't like to deal with nuance. They like drama and human stories. This can translate on occasion into exaggerated depictions of environmental risks, but it can also translate into exaggerated depictions of the suffering borne by industry when forced to comply with environmental regulations. Once Alar was removed from the market, the 60 Minutes story about cancer risks to children was replaced with a steady drumbeat of stories about hapless apple growers driven into bankruptcy.

The Alar counterattack was led by Elizabeth Whelan and ACSH. Between 1990 and 1995, ACSH held at least three press briefings on Alar at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. In its version of events, Alar was a beneficial and safe chemical that had been forced off the market by a deliberate scare campaign.

Other groups affiliated with the chemical and food industries joined in reinforcing this interpretation. The apple industry paid the Hill & Knowlton PR firm more than $1 million to produce and distribute advertisements claiming that children would have to eat "a boxcar load" of apples daily to be at risk. Hill & Knowlton persuaded former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop (who has close ties to ACSH) to issue a statement proclaiming that apples were safe and that the scare was overblown.

Porter/Novelli, a leading agribusiness PR firm, helped an industry group called the Center for Produce Quality distribute more than 20,000 "resource kits" to food retailers which scoffed at the scientific data presented on 60 Minutes. Industry-funded think tanks such as the Cato Institute, Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute have hammered home the argument that the "Alar scare" was an irrational episode of public hysteria produced by unscrupulous manipulators of media sensationalism.

Unlike the carefully reasoned analysis offered by Consumers Union, these conservative groups have felt no qualms about exaggerating numbers when it serves their purpose. The figure of $100 million is routinely tossed around as an estimate of losses suffered by apple growers due to the Alar scare, notwithstanding the absence of evidence to support that estimate. Apple growers did suffer $120 million in losses during 1989, but much of that loss was due to a market already glutted with apples prior to the 60 Minutes broadcast. And as some observers noted back in 1989, the real consumer backlash occurred after some apple growers were caught lying about the fact that they were continuing to use Alar. Regardless of the size of a risk, consumers do not like being lied to, and such outrage is not only predictable but rational.

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