Where my first post on the “True Story of Alar” left off, it was fall 1985. There being substantial evidence by then that Alar and UDMH (which it breaks down into when heated) were probable carcinogens, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was preparing to ban the chemical Alar from use on food crops. EPA submitted its proposed ban plan to the eight-member Science Advisory Panel established by federal law. The panel held a one-day meeting and concluded, that while the “studies do give rise to concern over the potential oncogenicity (the ability to cause tumors)” of Alar when combined with another chemical known as UDMH, "the available studies would not permit EPA to calculate the size of the cancer hazard it posed through food.” This would be needed in order to proceed with the ban.
The judgment of the panel itself may have had a political bias. A Senate oversight subcommittee revealed that 7 of the 8 members of the panel had been "paid consultants to the chemical industry or to organizations supported by the chemical industry at the time they served on the [Alar-decision] panel." Chris Wilkinson, one member of the panel, became a paid lobbyist for Uniroyal, Alar's manufacturer, shortly after he rendered judgment on the Alar data. The company hired him and sent him to Washington to lobby EPA scientists on Uniroyal's behalf, trying to alter the protocols that the agency had set for Uniroyal's mouse studies of Alar. Neither Wilkinson nor Uniroyal saw anything wrong with such a revolving door arrangement.
EPA was not required by law to follow the recommendations of the panel, and EPA staff scientists disagreed with its conclusion. But this was a political matter, and so in January 1986, EPA announced it would not seek to ban Alar, but would require apple growers to reduce its use by 50 percent, and would require Uniroyal, for the first time, to conduct its own studies of the carcinogenicity of Alar. By then, Alar had been on the market for 18 years and Uniroyal had never studied its carcinogenicity.
Interestingly, as EPA was back-pedaling, calling off plans to ban Alar, food purveyors and big apple producing states began to turn on the problem chemical. The National Food Processors Association and Gerber, the largest manufacturer of baby food, announced that their tests found Alar in apple juice and applesauce. Amidst mounting pressure from the public health community (the American Academy of Pediatrics had urged EPA to cancel Alar/UDMH) and cautious about their image to consumers, in 1986:
- • Gerber, Heinz, and Beech Nut stopped accepting Alar-treated apples for use in baby foods.
- • The makers of Mott's apple products, Veryfine apple juice, and Red Cheek apple juice, among others, announced they would not accept Alar-treated apples.
- • The Washington Apple Commission urged apple growers in the state of Washington to stop using Alar. More than half the nation's apple crop is grown in Washington State.
- • The State of Massachusetts passed legislation to phase out (by 1988) the use of Alar for apples that would later be processed and/or used for infant or baby foods.
- • The State of Maine followed the example of Massachusetts, but restricted the use of Alar even more rapidly, by October 1986.
- • At least four of the country's major grocery chains notified their apple suppliers that they would no longer accept apples treated with Alar: Safeway, the nation's largest chain; Kroger, the second-largest; Giant, the biggest chain in the Washington, D.C., area, and Grand Union, in the New York area pledged to stop stocking Alar-treated apples.
Even Uniroyal, despite its continuous claims of safety for Alar, voluntarily sent an advisory to apple processors recommending that Alar-treated apples not be used for applesauce because its intensive processing might cause Alar to release UDMH.
It was at this point that NRDC began its study to analyze the problems associated with 23 agrichemicals found in common fruits and vegetables (including Alar).
NRDC’s report took particular aim at the adequacy of the pesticide regulatory system to protect public health, specifically critiquing whether the methodology used by government for calculating the risks posed by pesticides took sufficient account of the special vulnerabilities and unique dietary patterns of infants and young children.
Concern about the risks to children presented by pesticides in the food supply was not exclusive to NRDC scientists. For a number of years, the nation’s scientific community had expressed their doubts about the regulatory system’s ability to protect the most vulnerable among us. This concern prompted a very different Congress than we have today to ask the National Academy of Sciences to study the effects of chemicals in the food supply of children. This request, by the way, came in 1988.
My next post will take us to 1989, the year NRDC released its report, “Intolerable Risk,” and 60 Minutes broadcast its news story, “A is for Apple.” We’ll look at the study findings, what 60 Minutes reported, and how the EPA and the industry reacted.