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L.A. Schools Take Apples Off Menu in Cancer Scare

Times Staff Writer

Starting this week, Los Angeles schoolchildren will find something missing from their lunch plate--apples.

In light of a national study that found children at an “intolerable risk” of cancer from pesticide residues on vegetables and fruit, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, will not serve apples or any apple products including juice, pies and applesauce, officials said Saturday.

The district’s 592,000 students gobble down more than 5 million apples yearly in school cafeterias and vending machines, second only to New York City, where 13 million apples were consumed by school children. New York City also banned the fruit late last week.

The Los Angeles district’s food services department made the decision without prolonged debate, said district spokeswoman Eva Hain. “That’s a lot of apples, so we decided to do it in order to protect the health and safety of students,” she said.

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The apple industry reacted with concern to the district’s decision.

“It’s very disturbing that Los Angles would arbitrarily make a decision to ban apples based on the results of one report in which the facts are not right,” said Derl I. Derr, president of the Virginia-based International Apple Institute, a trade organization for the $1.2-billion-a-year industry. “An apple a day is still healthy advice.”

Randy Altenberg, deputy director of food services for the Los Angeles district, said the district will not serve apples until it conducts its own independent laboratory tests to be assured that the fruits provided by distributors do not contain high levels of the pesticide residues. A decision on how long to ban the fruit will be based on those tests and any federal action, he said.

Incidence Increased

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The Washington-based National Resources Defense Council on Feb. 28 reported that the pesticide daminozide, which is sold under the brand name Alar, could increase the incidence of cancer in children. Applied chiefly to apples, it is used to maintain firmness and resist bruising in fruits and vegetables. It permeates the fruit skin and cannot be peeled off or washed away.

However, apple growers have reacted angrily, noting that only 4% of all apples sold in the United States show any traces of Alar and those amounts are well below levels permitted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Likewise, the California Department of Food and Agriculture called the study on which the districts’ decisions were based “irresponsible fear mongering.”

Derr said apple growers met Friday with federal agriculture officials regarding the controversy. He said that the Department of Agriculture agreed to send a letter to school districts nationwide assuring them that the alarm is unwarranted and that the study is misleading.

However, Altenberg said that he does not believe that officials overreacted to the situation. “We are taking a cautious approach to a problem that could affect the health of our schoolchildren,” he said. Individual cafeterias were notified late last week of the move.

Higher Risk

The National Resources Defense Council study concluded that children are at a higher risk from the pesticides than adults because they consume a higher ratio of fruits and vegetables in relation to their body weight--a fact not taken into account when setting federal safety levels for individual pesticides.

The study measured eight pesticides, all believed to be carcinogenic in 27 crops, including potatoes, carrots and apples. Of all the chemicals studied, the council considers daminozide the most hazardous. The pesticide level is so high--240 times the federal standard--that it is likely to cause cancer in one of every 4,200 preschoolers, the council concluded.

But Derr said that a separate study conducted by Consumers Union found that pesticide levels in apple juices were 50 times lower than the legal limit set by the EPA. The 1988 study tested 32 apple juice products, finding Alar residues in two-thirds. The highest level was .53 parts per million--well below the legal limit of 20 ppm.

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In Washington, representatives of the council have said that they will file a lawsuit unless the EPA agrees to revise regulations governing use of more than 300 pesticides. The council already has lost a suit against the agency in an effort to force a total ban on daminozide. They have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court after losing in the lower courts on a jurisdictional issue.

The EPA said the agency plans to review the study, but indicated that it is unlikely to move quickly to revise its pesticide guidelines.

In Los Angeles, instead of apples, more oranges, pears and bananas will be served, officials said.

DAMINOZIDE: ABOUT THE CHEMICAL

Daminozide, which has been marketed under the names Alar, B-Nine, Kylar and Sadh, is one of a family of chemicals known as kinetins which generally are used to stimulate fruit bearing and ripening.

Daminozide was developed in the early 1960s and has been used on apples, grapes, peanuts, tomatoes, nectarines and peaches, varying in its effects on the different plants.

Although sometimes called a pesticide, it does not kill insects.

On apples, daminozide stimulates early flower budding, inhibits growth unconnected to fruit bearing, quickens color development, helps retain firmness and helps control the ripening process. Treated apples stay on the tree longer and store better.

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But the chemical permeates the fruit and cannot be washed off or peeled away. There also are health concerns about changes that take place in the chemical when it is heated in processes that makes apple juice and applesauce.

Estimates of the annual cost of doing without daminozide vary from $31 million to $100 million.


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