Lancet Reviews Science Under Siege

July 16, 1994  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The Lancet  ·  Books

When the year 1000 approached, medieval people were terrified that the world was coming to an end. Just the same thing is happening now, only this time people believe that they are being poisoned and irradiated by the evil emissions of modern science. Pesticides, herbicides, food additives, computer screens, and electricity power lines have all been blamed for the two great twentieth-century epidemics — cancer and medically inexplicable symptoms. This politically incorrect book, however, argues otherwise.

Fumento sets out the case for and against Alar (a chemical sprayed on apple trees to stop the fruit falling), electromagnetic radiation, and several other products and phenomena that have been attacked by consumer activists, and dismisses the charges for lack of evidence. Having satisfied himself — and me — that they are safe enough, he then goes on to explain the basics of epidemiology and risk assessment, and how they can be misused. Once upon a time, somewhere in Britain, there were ten housewives, nine of whom could not tell margarine from butter. Now there is a power line running over ten houses in which nine families have had someone die of cancer. Use a small enough sample, he says, and you can prove most things.

Fumento gives some powerful case histories of how the media can be manipulated by pressure groups. In the USA a consumer group decided to have a go at Alar. Apple growers liked Alar because it meant no premature dropping and even-sized fruit that could all be picked in one go. It passed its safety tests, and another set of tests when more stringent standards were introduced later.

Only one test proved equivocal — when a megadose of Alar was associated with cancers in mice, though not in rats. When the National Resources Defense Council activists got hold of this test, many years after it was published, they called it "new evidence." They promised the television show 60 Minutes an exclusive.

Then the activist Ralph Nader telephoned the head of the department store Safeway and said "We’re going to start a campaign to get Alar out of apples but why don’t you save yourself a lot of trouble and us by saying that you’re not going to buy any apples or apple products with Alar from you growers."

A week later Safeway put out a press release saying that they were buying no more products containing Alar. Then Nader telephoned the heads of other supermarket chains and told them that Safeway had stopped selling Alar-treated apples, and why not follow suit? They followed suit.

After the 60 Minutes programme, other journalists were given the press pack and ran their own stories. The public took the message to heart and, eager to prevent children from dying of leukemia, campaigned against Alar. The film actress Meryl Streep campaigned, as a mother, against Alar. So it was withdrawn.

The wholesale price of apples fell well below break-even level and put many growers out of business. When the new crops of Alar-free apples were ready, the retail price had rocketed. This was tough for mothers trying to feed children healthily on welfare handouts, though harmless to Meryl Streep and her children.

In Britain, the anti-Alar campaign, though rebutted by the Independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides, led to voluntary withdrawal. Many English apple growers went out of business and the British now import Alar-grown apples from France.

Ignorance is strength, said a political manifesto in Orwell’s 1984. Fumento argues with wit, style, and a fair amount of scholarship that the consumer activists who warn us about thuggery are the very people who are mugging us.