Case Study: Alar
Much as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle led to passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act 0f 1906, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring triggered bans of DDT and other toxins, the airing in February 1989 of the 60 Minutes broadcast, "A is for Apples" -- based in large part on NRDC publication, "Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children's Food" -- sparked a chain of events that led to critical improvements in food safety policy.
Scientists had long expressed concern that the methodology used by government for calculating the risks posed by pesticides did not adequately take into account vulnerabilities of children. But as of the late '80s, none had done the in depth analysis of children's diet and pesticide residues that NRDC did in consultation with researchers at Columbia University.
NRDC's "Intolerable Risk" analyzed the hazards -- cancer and neurotoxicity -- to American children under 6 years old from exposure to 23 agrichemicals found in common fruits and vegetables, and concluded that the pesticide regulatory system designed to protect public health was not protecting our kids.
One of the chemicals analyzed was called Alar (tradename for daminozide), a growth-regulator used to prevent apples from dropping to the ground too early. Alar topped the NRDC report's list -- along with UDMH, which it breaks down into when heated -- as it posed the highest cancer risk to children. In addition to the substantial evidence, including research by Uniroyal (its manufacturer), indicating that Alar/UDMH was carcinogenic, there was a lengthy record of fits and starts on the part of EPA to properly regulate its use, including proposing to ban it in 1985, then deciding not to, then changing plans again in early 1989.
"'A' is for Apple"
60 Minutes featured the issue in a segment called "'A' is for Apples," making Alar -- a probable carcinogen allowed for use on a fruit much consumed by kids in its raw and processed forms -- a "poster child" of a weak and inadequate regulatory system.
The segment led to significant public outrage leading Uniroyal to pull Alar from the market in May 1989 and EPA finally to terminate its food uses later in the year.
In 1992, EPA would complete its special review of Alar's hazards, concluding that the "dietary risk posed to the general population in 1989 was unreasonable" and that the Agency stood by its 1989 decision to terminate the food uses of Alar.
In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) completed a report commissioned by Congress, "Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Small Children," confirming the fundamental finding of NRDC's study -- that existing pesticide regulations did not adequately protect infants and children.
In response to this groundbreaking research, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 fundamentally changing the way EPA was to regulate pesticides. Some of the major requirements included stricter safety standards, especially for infants and children, and a complete reassessment of all existing pesticide tolerances.
The industry backlash to the 60 Minutes segment was fierce, fueled by a well-funded disinformation campaign led by an industry front group, the American Council for Science and Health.
Washington State apples growers sued CBS and NRDC in 1990 claiming the 60 Minutes broadcast, with its warning of potential health risks from Alar, was false. The cases did not hold up, however. Concluding that the case against Alar was not based on "junk science," but on a reasonable interpretation of the facts, a federal district court dismissed the claims against NRDC in 1992.
The same court granted summary judgment to CBS, but that decision was appealed by the growers. Ultimately, all claims against CBS were dismissed in 1995, with the court making the simple point 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.
This landmark ruling, which at its heart is about the freedom of a non-profit organization to research and report on matters of public health policy, is a victory for the First Amendment, the public's right to know and the safety of future generations.
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).
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).
last revised 5/24/2011
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