THE BLOG
05/12/2011 11:56 am ET | Updated Jul 12, 2011

The True Alar Story IV

In 1989, Americans virtually stopped buying apples after 60 Minutes, the TV news show, aired a story showing a weak Environmental Protection Agency incapable of taking action against Alar, the problem farm chemical sprayed on apples about which I have been reporting here, here and here.

Alar, which had been found in numerous studies to pose an unacceptable cancer risk, particularly to children, was one of 23 agrichemicals found in common fruits and vegetables about which the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reported in their study, < ahref="http://www.nrdc.org/health/alar/">"Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children's Food."

Apple purchases dipped dramatically that spring, by 50 to 60 percent according to some estimates, with growers reporting losses of $100 million. This was the last straw for some growers, as apple sales were already depressed (they dropped 30 percent in 1984, after EPA first announced that Alar causes cancer in animals). Many lost their homes and livelihoods.

Apple sales would remain well below normal until late 1989, when the EPA finally published its cancellation order. 1990 became a year of record sales for apples, which not only countered the argument that Alar was an essential farm chemical, but directly linked its continued use to the sales slump growers experienced in the second half of the 1980s.

Growers knew that for many apple varieties, Alar was not an essential chemical; as The New York Times reported in September, 1989, "Many red apples, like Cortlands, Empires and Ida Reds; green apples, like Romes and Greenings, and yellow ones, like Golden Delicious and Crispin, mature on trees without the use of a 'stop-drop' spray like Alar." This was mostly a problem for just a few apple varieties, including McIntosh and Red Delicious. But even though a great many growers had stopped using Alar following EPA's 1984 announcement, the 60 Minutes story put all apples in the cross hairs.

Even organic growers had trouble, although not for the same reason. At the time, the organic market was made up of small-scale producers who usually sold directly to consumers. These growers were overwhelmed by the demand from mainstream shoppers in response to Alar, but this jolt may have been just what this niche industry needed. The Organic Foods Production Act was enacted a year later, and organic production picked up steam in response to market pull. In fact, organic food retail sales have increased 20 percent or more annually since 1990, making this one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture.

Washington State, the largest producer of apples, pears, and cherries in the U.S., is also the leader in organic apple production, according to Washington State University, followed closely by Arizona and California. But in 1989, it was Washington State where most Delicious apples were grown. As the market began to discern which apple varieties were grown with Alar and which were not, the image of Delicious apples got a bit more bruised than others.

Perhaps that's why Washington State apple growers filed a lawsuit against NRDC and CBS November 28, 1990, claiming that the 60 Minutes broadcast, with its warning of potential health risks from Alar, was false.

But 14 months later, in January of 1992, a federal district court dismissed all claims against NRDC. The court stated that the NRDC report, "Intolerable Risk," was "not a polemical tract preying on raw emotions and irrational fears," and as it related to apples was "in large measure premised on Uniroyal's own market basket and carcinogenicity studies conducted in response to an EPA directive in 1984." The case against Alar, the court established, was not based on "junk science," but on a reasonable interpretation of the facts.

That September, EPA issued its final report on Alar, concluding that "the dietary risk posed to the general population in 1989 was unreasonable." Less than a year later, in June of 1993, the National Academy of Sciences issued its report, "Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Small Children," confirming the fundamental premise of NRDC's "Intolerable Risk" study: children are more vulnerable to dietary pesticide exposures.

So by the middle of 1993, a court of law, the federal government's oversight agency, and one of the nation's most prestigious scientific bodies had all validated NRDC's research as factually sound.

That September, the same court granted summary judgment to CBS, stating that "[A] news reporting service is not a scientific testing lab...and should be able to rely on a scientific government report when they are relaying the report's results." The growers appealed the district court's ruling in the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but in 1995 this court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the lawsuit, concluding clearly and simply that "[d]efamatory meaning may not be imputed to true statements," and that the apple industry had failed to prove the 1989 60 Minutes segment false.

The appeals court also affirmed that "the growers have provided no affirmative evidence that daminozide [Alar] does not pose a risk to children. The fact that there have been no studies conducted specifically on the cancer risks to children from daminozide does nothing to disprove the conclusion that, if children consume more of a carcinogenic substance than do adults, they are at higher risk for contracting cancer." The court concluded by recognizing animal studies as "a legitimate means for assessing cancer risks to humans."

This landmark ruling was a victory for the First Amendment, the public's right to know, and the safety of future generations. However, it barely rated coverage by the same news media that had fueled much of the original hysteria. The ruling was mentioned in only a handful of newspapers, often as if it had been a win for the industry. And there was very little notice of the National Academy of Sciences report.

Add to this void a concerted disinformation campaign by industry front groups, and the rewriting of Alar's history was well underway. These attacks were led by an organization called the American Council on Science and Health. Led by Elizabeth Whelan, who holds a masters degree from the Harvard School of Public Health (as I do), and self-described as a "consumer education and public health organization," ACSH was in fact funded by the industry (including $25,000 yearly from Uniroyal) and represented industry interests.

What's shocking is that journalists, particularly in television news, rarely referenced ACSH's financial backing or whose interests it was serving. Worse, the media more often than not blindly accepted the front group's propaganda, reiterating its contention that Alar was not harmful to humans, that animal tests cannot prove a product's carcinogenicity, and that NRDC had cried wolf.

ACSH had a clear goal and an effective strategy: "to impeach the credibility" of environmentalists by systematically making the case that the "Alar Scare" was a false alarm, a prime example of "Chicken Little" environmentalism. ACSH "created and then repeated myth after myth about this carcinogen - not only through an all-out frontal assault but consistently in passing references," wrote Charles Fulwood, then NRDC's director of communications, in Public Relations Quarterly in 1996, "so that any time an environmental organization warned of the dangers of a pesticide, food additive or other product, they could label it 'another Alar.' And to a large degree, they succeeded."

Once the initial ACSH stories entered the electronic databases that journalists routinely use for research, they were repeated uncritically and uncontextually in subsequent stories. "In all, of the roughly 80 articles, editorials, op-eds, and book reviews that commented directly on whether Alar actually posed a risk," Eliot Negin wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in 1996, "all but a handful present the Alar affair as much ado about nothing."

Despite the myth-spewing enveloping Alar, Congress did pass the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996, fundamentally changing the way EPA was to regulate pesticides. Some of the major requirements include stricter safety standards, especially for infants and children, and a complete reassessment of all existing pesticide tolerances. This was further evidence, according to Dr. Phil Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the chair of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Pesticides in the Diet of Infants and Children, that "NRDC was absolutely on the right track when they excoriated the regulatory agencies for having allowed a toxic material such as Alar on the market for 25 years without proper toxicity testing."

In practice, truth and science did prevail in this battle, and key protections were won for children, as well as the public's right-to-know, thanks to the efforts of environmental and consumer organizations and to the scientific integrity of government research institutions. But is truth and science losing the war? Industry front groups like American Council on Science and Health have ony gotten stronger, and today are stoking the flames of a "renewed culture war over the very nature of scientific reality," as Judith Warner writes in her article, "Fact-Free Science" in The New York Times Magazine.

What's deeply troubling about all this is that smack in the center of what Warner describes as a "mainstreaming and a radicalization of antiscientific thought" stands our Congress, where a majority of members say that man-made climate change, and the threat it represents, are at best exaggerations and at worst an utter "hoax." These officials seem to be reading from the industry playbook, the one that's been in development since NRDC rightly placed Alar under the microscope. Today it uses the anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party to mask industry's propaganda.

Whether it is toxic substances in food, climate science, or EPA regulations to protect our air and water, industry continues to mislead the American public about risks to our health and well being. In the case of Alar, industry succeeded in rewriting history because NRDC and the litigation-wary media did not aggressively seek to set the record straight at every opportunity.

But the public is clearly on our side: According to a poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation, two in three Americans want the EPA to be more aggressive in protecting health and safety.

Today media have become much more decentralized than 20 or 30 years ago. We've got to lift the veil off the propaganda machines and restore our country's respect for and trust in science and fact, as well as defending our right to know about the substances being used in the environment. We must pledge to not allow truth to be set aside for ideology or profits.

References

1. International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC], IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of the Carcinogenic Risk of Chemicals to Humans, Supplement 4 (Lyon, France: IARC, 1982). See Appendix 2. The IARC can be contacted at: IARC, 150 Cours Albert Thomas, 69372 Lyon, France.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Health and Environmental Effects Profile for 1.1.- Dimethylhydrazine [EPA/600/X-84-134] (Port Royal, Va.: National Technical Information Service [NTIS], January, 1984). The NTIS document number is PB88-130083.

United States Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program, Fourth Annual Report on Carcinogens -- Summary 1985 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986), pgs. 92-93.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Pesticides and Toxic Substances, Report of the audits of the studies on the carcinogenic potential of succinic acid 2,2-D Dimethylhydrazide (Daminozide) and 1,1-Dimethylhydrazine in swiss mice, studies conducted at the Eppley Institute, The University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, Nebraska, Audits conducted January 21-24 1985 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1985). And: D.G. Goodman, Review of the Blood Vessel Neoplasms of Lung, Kidney and Liver in Swiss Mice Administered 1,1-Dimethylhdrazine in drinking water prepared for Dymac corporation, 1140 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Maryland, August 19, 1985 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1985).

2. Charles Fulwood, "Alar Report Right from the Start, But You Would Never Know It" (Public Relations Quarterly, July 1, 1996.