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Wendy Gordon

Wendy Gordon

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The True Alar Story

Posted: 03/30/11 02:24 PM ET

Ever heard of Alar? Is this more or less what you have heard?: The "Alar scare" of 1989 was a hoax based on junk science perpetrated by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Consumer's Union, 60 Minutes on CBS, and the actress Meryl Streep.

I wouldn't be surprised if that's the narrative you heard. But it is absolute bunk.

This rendition of the Alar story has been told and retold so many times since 1989 that it's accepted truth. According to this version, Alar was in fact a safe chemical that was absolutely essential for the health of the nation's apple industry, and that it was forced from the market by environmental and consumer extremists at a cost to the industry of at least $100 million.

Actually, the truth is that Alar was -- and is -- not a safe chemical. And it was not necessary for the health of the nation's apple industry. The U.S. courts settled this contentious debate once and for all in 1992-93 when judges dismissed the apple growers' lawsuit against NRDC and CBS, two organizations involved in the uncovering of the true story of Alar. The truth is that apple production has grown in the decades since Alar was forced from the market.

So why does common wisdom suggest otherwise? And what lessons can we draw from a decades old case to what is happening with another environmental issue today?

The distortion of the Alar story is in fact the machinations of a sophisticated public relations counterattack on the part of industry front groups and conservative media, which successfully turned reality upside down, much like they are doing today with the science of climate change and the need for environmental regulation.

The barrage of attacks on the EPA and the Clean Air Act going on right now in Congress, aided and abetted by right-wing front groups, reminds me of the attacks on NRDC following the release of its report "Intolerable Risk" which exposed the failure of a regulatory system to take into account the unique vulnerabilities and dietary patterns of young children when establishing standards for safe levels of pesticides in food. NRDC was slammed as a radical organization and the scientific underpinnings of its research attacked as illegitimate.

Nothing could be further from the truth, though this is the story that won the day. How would I know? I was working at NRDC at the time. In fact, I shared a small office with Robin Whyatt, Ph.D., a principal researcher and co-author of the report, and after its release I partnered with Meryl Streep and many other concerned parents to form Mothers & Others. Consumers have a right to know, we argued, what's in the food they feed their families, to vote with their dollars for a safe and sustainable food system and to demand that our government puts public health, particularly our children's, above corporate interests.

Lets look at some of the accepted "facts" of the Alar case.

The first error is that NRDC's report focused on Alar. In fact, "Intolerable Risk" analyzed the hazards of 23 agrichemicals found in common fruits and vegetables consumed by American children during the first six years of life, and considered the cancer hazard, toxicity to the central nervous system and inadequacies in the pesticide regulatory system designed to protect public health. Alar became the "poster child" for the research, and the media clamor to follow, as it was the one 60 Minutes zoomed in on with their segment, "A is for Apple."

There were very good reasons to make an example of Alar, as this four-part review of its history will tell. It was not the safe chemical the media has mythologized. In fact, its hazards became evident in the 1970s soon after hitting the market. And the true story of Alar, which saw the light of day for a brief moment in the spring of 1989, turned a white-hot spotlight on the challenges the EPA faced then and still today getting a problem chemical removed from the market. This may be why the industry fought back with such vengeance, and worked especially hard turning the media story around. The regulatory system was tipped in industry's favor; to cede ground to the EPA and consumers regarding Alar could have opened a floodgate of reforms.

So what then is the true story of Alar?

Let's start in 1968, when Alar entered the market. The Uniroyal Corporation had received a government license to sell it for use on apples and peanuts. Alar by the way is not a pesticide as many mistakenly call it. It's a growth regulator, the "stop-drop" wonder chemical. It doesn't kill pests but prevents fruit from dropping to the ground too early. As a consequence, Alar provided economic benefits to apple growers, who could harvest their crop over a longer period, easing labor issues. The benefit to consumers was a cosmetically enhanced apple that stayed a bit crunchier a bit longer.

The germ of Alar's undoing is in its chemical makeup. Alar is manufactured by mixing succinic anhydride with 1,1,dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), a toxic component of rocket fuel. UDMH has always been a contaminant present in Alar. In addition, Alar degrades into UDMH when it is heated -- as in cooking applesauce, or sterilizing apple juice for bottling -- or when Alar is digested in the human stomach. In tests of carcinogenicity [cancer-causing power], UDMH proves to be about 1,000 times as powerful as Alar itself.

But it is safe to say that the health effects of Alar had hardly been evaluated before it was licensed for use in 1968. Back in those days, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had legal responsibility for the health and safety aspects of all crop chemicals. Between 1945 and 1966, USDA licensed nearly 60,000 individual pesticides at a time when the agency had only one toxicologist on staff; it was his job to keep abreast of the health and safety literature (if any existed) for each of the 60,000 products. In 1972, this responsibility was passed to the EPA.

Concerns about the health impacts of Alar began in 1973, when a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that mice given UDMH at high levels in their drinking water developed cancer of the lung, kidney, liver, lymph system, and blood vessels. A follow-up study of mice published in 1977 confirmed the finding of cancer in the lungs, kidneys, and blood vessels of treated mice. The same year, researchers also published a study of Alar's effect on Golden hamsters, which found rare blood vessel tumors and tumors of the intestines in both sexes. There was also evidence of cancer in a third species, rats, exposed to Alar in a study conducted by the National Cancer Institute in 1978.

Though its manufacturer played down Alar's risks (Uniroyal claimed to have studies of workers that proved Alar/UDMH was safe, though never released the data), by the early 1980s, prominent health research institutions - the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the Carcinogen Assessment Group within the U.S. EPA and the U.S. National Toxicology Program - had reached agreement that Alar/UDMH causes cancer in laboratory animals and is a "probable human carcinogen."

At the time of these studies, a provision of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (the so-called Delaney Clause) required EPA to ban pesticides known to cause cancer in animals or humans if those pesticides concentrated in processed food, such as applesauce and apple juice. Though the 1977 study put Alar/UDMH squarely into its crosshairs, the EPA took no action against Alar for years.

That changed in 1984, when on September 19, the EPA announced that it was investigating the lifetime cancer risks among people eating apples and peanuts sprayed with Alar. A year later, in August 1985, EPA announced that it was planning to initiate a process that would result in banning Alar.

Its reasons: Alar was being used on 38 percent of the U.S. apple crop; it penetrated to the interior of the apple so washing wouldn't remove it; and it might be causing as many as 100 cancers per million people exposed to it in their diet for a lifetime. The official threshold for concern within EPA at that time was one cancer in a million exposed people, so Alar was thought to create a human health hazard at least 100 times as great as the agency considered acceptable. So in fall of 1985, EPA submitted its Alar ban plan to the Agency's Scientific Advisory Board (SAB).

Now wait, you say. The chemical, so widely thought of as the symbol of wildly exaggerated hazards by an extremist environmental group and the liberal media "crying wolf," turns out to have shown signs of trouble -- indeed of causing cancer -- within just a few short years of it appearing on the market? And as early as 1985, not 1989 when NRDC published its report, EPA, following the law, and with the public health establishment lined up in support, announced its plan to ban it? So what's all this stuff about Alar being forced from the market? It's hard to imagine the food industry was asleep through all this, oblivious to the mounting public health concerns and EPA's plans.

They weren't, but more on that in my next post.

This post first appeared in OnEarth.org.