Alar Revisited: Greens Still Trying to Salvage Their Alar-Stained Reputation

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  the Hudson Institute  ·  Alar

Nothing makes Greens — radical environmentalists — turn an angry red faster than invoking the word Alar to epitomize bogus environmental scares and imply that a current one is equally phony.

Manufactured by Uniroyal Chemical Co., Alar was commonly sprayed on apples to keep them on trees longer so that fewer would fall and rot before being harvested. The attack on it began in February 1989 when 60 Minutes reporter Ed Bradley called it "the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply."

Bradley’s main source was the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which had decided to scapegoat a single substance to illustrate the horrors of all manmade chemicals. The NRDC had retained a radical environmentalist PR firm, Fenton Communications, to create a front group called "Mother and Others for Pesticide Limits" and place horrifying articles in newspapers and women’s magazines.

The result: Terrified mothers threw out their applesauce, poured out their apple juice, and swore off apples entirely for "healthier foods" such as Twinkies. Apple farmers across the nation suffered, and some went bankrupt. Subsequently, articles, monographs, and books peeled the wraps off one of the slickest, most cynical fear campaigns in recent American history.

But the Greens are fighting back. Longtime environmental doomsayer Paul Ehrlich called the Alar debunking a "fable" in a 1997 book, and a 1996 article in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) declared, "The Alar Scare Was for Real." Their evidence ranged from embarrassingly weak to utterly false. Both, for example, noted that the EPA eventually banned the chemical, but neither revealed that Uniroyal had already withdrawn it because of all the bad publicity. The EPA proceeded without opposition.

CJR also trumpeted the fact that Washington State apple growers lost their suit against 60 Minutes alleging that their products were wrongly disparaged. But the court did not rule that Alar is carcinogenic, just that the apple growers had failed to meet the extremely high standards needed to win a suit against a media outlet.

The facts on Alar remain. The attack was based on findings of tumors in mice, although the same chemical doses caused no tumors in rats. The EPA arbitrarily decided that mice were a better surrogate for humans. Had the rats developed the tumors rather than the mice, presumably the agency would have made the reverse decision.

In the same year as the Alar scare, a United Nations panel of seven members of the World Health Organization and seven from the Food and Agricultural Organization concluded that Alar was not "oncogenic [cancer-causing] in mice."

In 1992 it met again, reviewed the final data on Alar and the chemical it breaks down into (called UDMH), and repeated its conclusion. Also that year, the British government reviewed the animal studies on Alar and concluded, in the words of an expert panel appointed by Parliament, that there was "no risk to health" from Alar.

A year after the scare, Robert Scheuplein, then a toxicologist with the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, declared, "The effort that we are spending trying to reduce the last bit of Alar . . . and other pesticide traces [in food] has virtually no effect, no impact, on the total risk" of cancer, and that 98.82 percent of the cancer risk in the diet is from traditional foods, not pesticides.

Yet the Environmental Working Group, on the tenth anniversary of the Alar hysteria, recently ran a full page ad in the New York Times declaring, "10 YEARS AFTER ALAR, APPLES STILL NEED A CLEANUP."

The real message is that the tactics of many environmentalist groups still need a cleanup.