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Alar in Applesauce and Mercury in Fish: The Connection

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I've been thinking about Alar ever since I started learning about methylmercury in the fish we eat. In 1989, I watched a TV news show in horror as Meryl Streep asked a powerful question about a chemical in applesauce; the memory of it has stayed with me ever since. I was a new mom. One son was a year old. The other was four. All I wanted was to keep them safe. I did everything I could to make sure what they ate was clean and healthy.

And there was Meryl Streep, also a new mom, saying, as I recall it: "You mean the Alar being sprayed on apples is a poison? I'm spooning applesauce into my babies' mouths all day long. And now I'm finding out the applesauce is laced with Alar. And Alar can cause cancer?"

We were all spooning applesauce into our babies' mouths, every single day.

Meryl's question caused an uproar.

Millions of mothers stopped buying applesauce. And the orchard industry stopped spraying Alar.

I've been wishing we had a famous mom to do the same thing about methylmercury entering our waters, as mercury spewed primarily from unprotected coal-fired electric plants converting into methylmercury and entering fish, which we then consume. There's a reason pregnant women are told to limit their tuna consumption. And the reason is mercury from coal plants.

I started talking to friends about how we needed an Alar moment and I always mention Meryl and Alar as a defining moment in my consciousness as a mother. And as a citizen. Sometimes you have to cause an uproar in order to get something changed, especially when you're up against the billions of dollars spent by lobbyists to protect industry.

Every time I mention Meryl and Alar, someone says, Oh, but that turned out to be really controversial, didn't it? Wasn't that whole thing a hoax? Didn't Alar turn out to be just fine?

Finally, here is the definitive answer to that question -- a multi-part piece on the NRDC website by Wendy Gordon, explaining the facts of the Alar episode. Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4.

Alar was not a hoax. It was controversial. Alar -- a growth regulator developed to keep apples on the tree longer -- was licensed for use in 1968. Within years, scientists had agreed that Alar contained a contaminant that was "a probable human carcinogen." I won't get into a lengthy discussion here about how toxic chemicals are allowed to enter our lives even before they are proven safe.

After the outcry against Alar -- which was successful -- Wendy Gordon, who was working at NRDC at the time, teamed up with Meryl Streep to form Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet.

What this has to do with new Mercury and Air Toxics Regulations:

1. Don't assume that utility owners put their customers health first. They aren't any different from many large agricultural concerns. The bottom line counts most. Look at the work Laurie David and others are doing to alert the public about antibiotics in our food, for instance. Public health is not the number one concern.

2. Don't assume that because utilities are rich and powerful, one individual cannot make a difference in changing practices. Parents have power, when they unite their voices. Meryl Streep gave the anti-Alar forces a rocket boost, but it was the boycott by parents afterwards that pushed the issue to the table.

3. Don't put it past the polluters to spread disinformation, outright lies, and sow confusion about science. That's a tactic that has been used widely by everyone from Alar to tobacco, and now polluting coal plant owners are up to the same tricks.

4. Don't put it past regulators to play possum. Don't buy their arguments that regulations will kill jobs, even their industry. That's what apple growers claimed; orchards would close. It didn't happen. Anyone notice a shortage of apples? Auto manufacturers even claimed that installing seat belts would kill their industry. Didn't happen.

5. Don't give up the fight! This is a critically important issue for our children's health.

6. Adopt the third rail strategy. Make it clear to Washington that touching the Clean Air Act is like touching the third rail in the subways. It will hurt them!

We now have until August 4 to send a message to the EPA that we support the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. I'm told by political insiders that the coal plants are asking their employees to write EPA against the standards. So your emails, in favor of the standards, do matter. The numbers add up. After the comments close, we'll be asking everyone to let their representatives in Washington, and locally, know that we love the Clean Air Act, and we only want to strengthen it.

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