Background on the alar controversy

From various sources and news accounts

In the 1970s, a University of Nebraska scientist fed laboratory mice and rats very high doses of alar, causing tumors in the mice, but not the rats. The study results were initially dismissed by EPA because the doses were so high.

By the early 1983, though, EPA had changed its tune on alar. The agency had just been rocked by a major scandal involving its toxic waste cleanup program. Looking for a way to regain the agency's reputation, staff toxicologists recommended banning a pesticide. Alar became the target of a proposed ban in 1985. But the chemical didn't go quietly.

Some EPA staff found that the health risks of alar were well within the range of safety. A panel of outside scientific advisers rejected the EPA's recommendation to ban alar. In January 1986, the EPA was forced to withdraw the proposed ban. But help was on the way.

A campaign by consumer activist Ralph Nader forced many food processors to abandon the use of Alar-treated apples, including Heinz, Beech-Nut, Gerber, Mott's. Seneca, Welch, and Quaker Oats. Then, the Natural Resources Defense Council produced a report called "Intolerable Risks: Pesticides in Our Children's Food." The report claimed that "Our nation's children are being harmed by the very fruits and vegetables we tell them will make them grow up health and strong" and that kids exposure to pesticides residues would cause 6,000 cancers more than would otherwise occur.

The report might have gone little noticed as just another effort to alarm the public about pesticides, except that the report was released on the television news magazine 60 Minutes on February 26, 1989. The program aired right after EPA had announced a second effort to ban Alar. 60 Minutes staff had actually requested EPA to withhold announcing the ban so that it could be done on the television program.

The 60 Minutes program was sandwiched in the middle of a carefully arranged media blitz by NRDC staff. The day after the 60 Minutes program, the Alar story was taped for the Phil Donahue Show. Before and after the 60 Minutes program, Meryl Streep played a prominent speaking role against Alar, including an appearance on the Phil Donahue Show. Streep had been steered to NRDC by Robert Redford after they finished filming Out of Africa. She told him she wanted to get involved in an environmental cause.

The combination of EPA, NRDC, 60 Minutes, Meryl Streep and others worked. By the summer of 1989, the manufacturer voluntarily took Alar of the market.

In the end was all this necessary? Perhaps, if you were planning on consuming 4,000 gallons of apple juice per day for life. That's the equivalent dose for humans at which Alar was reported to cause cancer in mice. And the NRDC report? Once the Alar hysteria faded, so did "Intolerable Risks." But pesticides have remained. Why? The known benefits an abundant and safe food supply far outweigh and hypothetical risks.

And how about these words from the chairman of the 1993 National Research Council committee responsible for report "Pesticides in the Diet of Infants and Children." In the wake of the 1993 report, Dr. Philip Landrigan, a well-known as an advocate against pesticide use, was forced to admit that

"No disease has ever been documented that stems from legal applications of pesticides..."

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