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Ten years ago, 60 Minutes aired a scientifically unfounded report that set off a scare over the pesticide Alar, used on apples. Now one of the supporting players in that frightfest, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, has decided it’s time for a sequel.
"The same fresh peaches, grapes and apples that supply vital nutrients for growing children are also exposing millions of Americans to unsafe levels of potentially toxic pesticide residues," began the Washington Post’s article on the subject.
Published with an accompanying article in the March issue of Consumer Reports, the CU report ostensibly aims at educating parents. But it appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to influence the Environmental Protection Agency during a crucial time for making decisions as to what pesticides will be effectively banned.
Fruit worms applauded the Consumer Reports "study."
The report relies on a rating system that assigns a "toxicity index" score to 27 foods. The number is based on an arbitrarily selected set of criteria. "This all looks very impressive and comprehensive on paper but really has no valid scientific precedent," says Carl Winter, director of the FoodSafe Program at the University of California at Davis.
Example: For pesticides listed as suspected "endocrine disrupters" — chemicals that may cause harm by mimicking hormones — the toxicity index "was multiplied by a factor of three." Why? "In our judgment, potential endocrine disruption is a more important aspect of a chemical’s toxicity than even potential carcinogenicity."
A better explanation? Much more is known about cancer causation than about endocrine-disruption. "There is no method yet for doing a risk assessment on chemicals that have possible endocrine active effects," says Robert Golden, a Bethesda, Md., toxicologist. "So there’s no justification scientifically for putting any sort of a factor in, three or otherwise."
Interestingly, CU got its list of potential endocrine disrupters not from an official database but rather the 1996 book Our Stolen Future. (Not incidentally, one of the three underwriters of the CU report was the W. Alton Jones Foundation, whose director co-authored the book).
"For them to come up with a list pulled from a popular book and say these are endocrine disrupters, this isn’t science," says Golden. "This is all politics."
As a rule, the media overlooked such details and independent scientists were virtually ignored, though environmentalists were called upon for comments. UPI paraphrased one, Todd Hettenbach of the Environmental Working Group, saying that "just a bite or two of an apple, peach or pear" could "cause dizziness, nausea and blurred vision" in a child if the fruit had been treated with the commonly used pesticide methyl parathion. Shades of Snow White.
Hettenbach is "totally off the wall," says Laura Plunkett, a Phoenix neurotoxicologist who works as a consultant to the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and private industry. "Unless it were 100% soaked, absolutely dripping with methyl parathion, there’s no way that a few bites of fruit would be a problem."
The worst aspect of CU’s rating system and the media coverage thereof is that it has no outside reference point. Yet the media were mightily impressed. "Seven fruits and vegetables," Reuters breathlessly reported, "had up to hundreds of times higher toxicity than other foods analyzed." But hundreds of times a virtually nonexistent risk can still be virtually nonexistent. "When you use real data it’s hard to make a strong case that pesticides are posing real health threats to infants and children," says Winter.
Even CU found that more than 95% of the time detected pesticide residues were within legal bounds, and even when they weren’t it was usually because a pesticide happened to be on a crop it wasn’t registered for. Yet those bounds themselves are incredibly conservative, generally based on taking a dose below that which causes any discernible effects in lab animals and dividing it by 100. "If the food supply has such conservative tolerances and only a little is above, that’s pretty darned good," says Golden.
CU’s technical policy director, Ed Groth, said the report is "not frightening. It’s empowering. It’s about giving consumers information to make choices for themselves."
Nonsense. It was about scaring the hell out of parents. The ensuing headlines were utterly predictable:
The only entity the report was meant to empower was the EPA, to interpret the Food Quality Protection Act as severely as possible against pesticides and farmers. CU’s own representatives indicated as much at a press conference. "We think it’s time for the EPA to get on with it," said CU pesticide policy analyst Jeannine Kenney. "Put this tough new law into action."
No, the CU report isn’t about kids; it’s about stirring up fear of chemicals. And one obvious consequence is that it will dissuade parents from feeding their children fresh produce. "People need to know that all the evidence just keeps pointing towards eating more fruits and vegetables," says Golden. "What Consumers Union has done, this is dangerous stuff."