Scare tactics on pesticide
By Dennis Avery
Copyright 1999 Journal of Commerce
March 17, 1999
Scaring people about
pesticides means scaring them away from eating fruits and vegetables. That presents an
ethical dilemma, because health experts know that eating five servings of
fruits and vegetables a day can cut your cancer risk in half. That's according
to a review by experts at the National Institutes of Health and the University
of California at Berkeley.
That's why it was tragic to see a once-proud American magazine,
Consumer Reports, carry a scare story about
pesticides on fruits and vegetables in its March issue.
Consumer Reports claimed to have
"analyzed pesticides levels in 27,000 samples of fruits and vegetables" and found many - apples,
grapes, green beans, peaches, pears, spinach and winter squash - had
"toxicity scores" so high that parents should consider not serving them to
What the magazine actually did was take the results of U.S. Department of
Agriculture sampling - which found no dangerous residues - and have two known
fearmongers twist the data into a scare story.
One of them, Edward Groth III of Consumers Union, the nonprofit that publishes
Consumer Reports, was part of the most famous environmental media hoax of modern times, the Alar
In February 1989, the CBS newsmagazine
"60 Minutes" called Alar, a growth regulator for apples,
"the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply." Some mothers were so
frightened they dumped apple juice
down the drain and some schools stopped serving apples. In May 1989,
Consumer Reports published a cover story on Alar titled
The Alar scare was later repudiated by organizations no less prestigious than
the U.S. National Research Council and the World Health Organization.
Mr. Groth and co-author Charles Benbrook, formerly with the National Academy of
Sciences' Board on Agriculture, base their latest tale on an Agricultural
Department report on tests of 27,000 fruit and vegetable samples for
pesticide residues. The department found none above the legal limits, which are based on
exhaustive safety testing involving laboratory animals.
Messrs. Benbrook and Groth, however, constructed their own toxicity index, to
create the illusion of consumer risk. They multiplied some residues as much as
One of their biggest
multipliers was for
"endocrine disruption." But why? No one has ever demonstrated any health risk
from endocrine disruption - from
pesticides or anything else.
Some activists claim
pesticides disrupt the functioning of the body's endocrine system, which controls hormone
secretion. However, there are vastly more
"endocrine disrupters" in fruits and vegetables themselves - and even
Consumer Reports agrees those are mostly good for you.
For all the voodoo numbers in the toxicity index, the most galling tactic in
"study" is its deliberate misuse of government reference levels.
These are the government's established safety limits for
pesticide residues. The
"acute" reference level of
pesticide exposure is one that might cause immediate illness, such as nausea.
For safety's sake, the government sets the acute reference level at 1 percent
of the toxic level.
"chronic" level for
pesticide exposure is one that might
cause chronic illness if you were exposed to it each and every day for 70
years. Here the safety factor is even larger; the government sets the chronic
level at 0.1 percent of the level that causes any health problems in
experiments on lab rats.
Consumer Reports used a few violations of this much lower
"chronic" level to imply that anything over these low levels represents an
immediate, acute health threat to children.
It's as if the government had set an acceptable
"chronic" daily level of two aspirin a day to prevent heart disease, but warned
"acute dose" of 500 aspirin all at once could cause toxic shock. The
Consumer Reports article basically tries to scare parents about three aspirin, taken once, for
above the acute reference level would pose an immediate health threat to
children. Not one of the 27,000 food samples tested was even remotely close to
Moreover, only a fraction of the produce tested was above the much lower
chronic reference level.
Consumer Reports pointedly failed to note the major report by the U.S. National Research
Council in 1996, which found no appreciable risk from
Even more disturbing, major TV networks and newspapers accepted
Consumer Reports as a valid source. For two days American parents were bombarded with fiercely
worded claims that popular fruits and vegetables were potentially deadly to
If there were any doubt the
Consumer Reports article was the kickoff for a campaign to eliminate the
pesticides that protect our fruits and vegetables, the agenda was made clear Feb. 23.
Working Group took out a full-page ad in that day's New York Times to claim,
"A decade after Alar, apples are still in need of a cleanup," and warn of a
"chemical crisis" in American produce.
One staffer even claimed
"just a bite or two of an apple, peach or pear, which had legal residues of (the
insecticide) methyl parathion, could cause dizziness, nausea and blurred
vision" in a child.
Such freewheeling misinformation is the real threat to our children's health.