Pesticides, chemicals, and food

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KIMBALL, Neb. – Ever since the Alar scare of 1989, certain segments of the media, certain environmental, watchdog and consumer protection organizations, and certain realms of government and politics have kept the threat of pesticide contamination of the U.S. food supply alive and in the public eye.

In the case of the Alar scare, the plant growth regulating chemical was blamed for causing cancer deaths in children. In the wake of news stories, public concern and outrage, and congressional hearings, the food-use registration of Alar was voluntarily withdrawn, and the U.S. apple industry was nearly destroyed.

This would all be well and good if Alar had actually caused cancer, but it did not. Leaving aside the motivations which caused a false narrative to take control of the FDA’s well established and scientific vetting process, it’s worth a quick look back to 1989 to see what actually happened.

Alar, or daminozide, was hormone-like chemical developed and marketed by the Uniroyal Chemical Company. First developed in the 1960’s Alar was used to slow plant growth, first in potted chrysanthemums. Later it became routinely used in tree fruit around the world to prevent pre-harvest fruit drop, promote color development, and increase storage life.

Before gaining registration for use on food crops, beginning in 1968, Alar was vetted by the FDA for a period of two years to ensure it was safe for humans, specifically to ensure that it did not cause cancer. Testing was done on laboratory rats and mice.

In 1973, researcher Bela Toth of the Eppley Institute for Research in Cancer in Omaha, Neb., reported finding that a breakdown product of Alar – UDMH, or 1,1-dimethylhydrazine – when administered at several times the maximum tolerated dose, appeared to cause multiple tumors in mice. In 1977 Toth conducted similar studies using Alar itself, rather than the breakdown product UDMH, and reported tumor development in mice – again when administering Alar at many times the maximum tolerated dose.

In 1978 the National Cancer Institute conducted extensive testing on Alar and found it to be a weak carcinogen, but so weakly carcinogenic that the finding did not meet any threshold for the EPA to restrict or revoke the use of Alar on food crops.

In response to Toth’s studies as well as the NCI finding, Uniroyal sponsored several other independent studies to determine carcinogenicity of Alar, and none was found. Nevertheless, the EPA conducted a special review of Alar beginning in 1980. Such reviews are standard when new data become available regarding an already-approved product.

In 1985 an EPA advisory panel, as part of the special review, looked at Toth’s results and methods. They were surprised to find several errors in scientific procedure in Toth’s work and determined that the data were inadequate as a basis for quantitative risk assessment and that it failed to provide the EPA with sufficient justification for banning Alar. In 1989 British review, published by the Pesticides Safety Directorate of the U.K. Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, reached similar conclusions. In describing the flaws in Toth’s research, the British panel cited a lack of concurrent controls, poor record keeping, insufficient documentation, and, remarkably, the use of dose levels that were much too high. “In this situation in which a chemical causes severe and biologically significant physiological change,” they wrote, “it is this change itself, caused by toxicity, which can result in tumours.”

In 1986 the EPA decided to permit the continued use of Alar and tasked Uniroyal with providing continuing residue and chronic toxicity data. None of the subsequent studies found Alar or UDMH caused cancer. In reviewing the data, U.S. and U.K. reviewers concluded neither Alar nor UDMH were cancer causing agents, and that neither posed a risk to the health of adults, children, or infants.

Leaning toward the side of safety, however, the EPA decided phase out of Alar by July 31, 1990. Using a “worst case” figure on the consumption of apples, the agency concluded that continued use of Alar could increase the lifetime risk to 45 cancers per one million persons exposed, and the agencies policy forbids the use of any agricultural chemical that causes more than one cancer per million exposed individuals.

Following EPA’s Alar announcement, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), kicked off a public relations campaign to ban Alar, beginning with a February, 1989 report on Alar by

the CBS program “60 Minutes.” This and other reports made a number of unsubstantiated claims, including that Alar would cause 240 cancer cases per million children who consumed apples. For children who ate a lot of apples, apple sauce, and drank apple juice, the 60 Minutes report said as many as one in 1,100 would develop cancer.

Unsurprisingly, public panic followed the airing of the 60 Minutes story. Schools stopped serving apples and apple products, and stores pulled apple products from their shelves. By May, 1989, the U.S. apple industry had lost more
than $100 million.

Nothing in the NRDC’s public relations campaign bore anything close to an actual representation of the situation. As it turns out, one of the most comprehensive studies of the carcinogenicity of Alar, conducted by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) calculated probable lifetime risk at 3.5 cancer cases per trillion population.

Alar was used for more than 20 years without causing a single case of cancer in humans. Nevertheless, it was banned by the EPA, due at least in part to slipshod science and a robust but counterfactual public relations campaign. Are there any lessons we can take away from this episode?

On the one hand, it’s hard to fault the EPA for banning the use of Alar in food crops. In protecting the safety of consumers, who expect the food they buy to be safe, the EPA really does need to err on the side of caution. It’s unfortunate the Alar situation played out as it did, and unfortunate that unscrupulous fear-mongering caused unneeded panic and severely damaged the apple industry, but at the end of the day the safety of consumers came first.

This episode does illustrate the very real danger of agenda-driven activists. Unscrupulous people who are willing to play fast and loose with the facts and who have a great deal of money to spend on driving a particular narrative or viewpoint can cause real harm to people engaged in lawful and principled business, like farmers. And let’s not forget about unnecessary fear and anxiety for consumers, as well as the expense of dealing with food price volatility when markets are disrupted. 


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