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The People Who Blew Whistle on Alar

Times Environmental Writer

They have been called “toxic terrorists” and “fear mongers.” Their reputation as scientists has been assailed on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and their ethics and responsibility challenged.

So why do they seem elated?

To the authors of the report that ignited a recent furor over a chemical used on apples, the results could not be better. With the attention of the American public now focused on food safety, the Natural Resources Defense Council believes that its report has generated enough pressure to help push new pesticide legislation through Congress and move an often reluctant Environmental Protection Agency.

“We fully expected to take a few shots from our friends in the chemical industry and our friends in government--whom we repeatedly sue successfully,” said Albert Meyerhoff, an attorney who directs the group’s pesticide program.

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Whether some of the shots were deserved remains a subject of debate. The near hysteria prompted by the report has raised questions about how a potential hazard should be exposed when there is a possibility that publicity may trigger an overreaction.

It has also sharply raised the profile of the NRDC, a 19-year-old, New York-based organization known more for the courtroom victories of its attorneys than the studies of its scientists. Considered lower-key and more technically oriented than many other environmental groups, the NRDC is one of the most respected of the nation’s environmental organizations and in 1985 was rated the most influential by congressional and EPA staff members.

Environmental groups are wary of criticizing one another, and most have only praise for the NRDC. But one environmentalist who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity faulted the group for being too purist at times.

“NRDC tends to be for zero risk,” the environmentalist said. It is prone to arguing for total removal of an environmental hazard even if the danger it poses is small, “whereas we would be willing to accommodate a one-in-a-million risk in exchange for getting enforceable standards,” the environmentalist said.

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While the NRDC has 30 lawyers and 20 scientists, it has no economist to weigh the costs of an environmental reform against its benefits. The NRDC runs its New York, Washington, San Francisco and Honolulu offices on an $11-million budget, financed primarily and almost evenly by foundations and dues paid by its 100,000 members, NRDC spokeswoman Cathy Dold said.

Critics of the group complain that its pesticide study relied partly on data that a science advisory panel to the EPA had ruled invalid. And even if that data had been reliable, questions about responsibility would still linger. Some government officials and scientists complain that scaring people into withdrawing fresh fruit and vegetables from a child’s diet causes more harm than the chemical or pesticide itself.

Two government scientists familiar with the report said in telephone interviews that it was more valid than its critics contend. The data used were the only available figures at the time the study was undertaken, and more recent findings still point to a hazard, although of a smaller magnitude.

The NRDC report, which said that apples treated with daminozide, a growth regulator sold under the trade name Alar, pose health risks to children was “within the ballpark of being respectably accurate,” said a government scientist who asked to remain anonymous. He said that a group of independent scientists who reviewed the study before publication found some errors that the group corrected.

“We can quibble around the edges, but I think it’s pretty good basically,” said another government scientist. “Some of them (scientists who reviewed the study) had problems with the way the report was presented, the rhetoric.

“But believe me, if you think the NRDC caused a ruckus, it would have been totally out of control if some of the other environmental groups had gotten ahold of it.”

The report described as “intolerable” the pesticide risk to children. “Our nation’s children are being harmed by the very fruits and vegetables we tell them will make them grow up healthy and strong,” began the summary of the report. Lawre Mott, an NRDC scientist who edited the study, said last week that the group never meant to imply that people should stop feeding their children fresh produce.

“We have never urged people not to eat apples,” she insisted. Rather, she said, the organization wanted to direct people to lobby to reduce pesticides and, if possible, to buy as much locally grown produce as possible, avoid imported fruit, “beware of perfect-looking fruit and vegetables” and search for supplies of certified organic produce.

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But as late as last week, the group still seemed to be sending mixed messages. A staff member in the New York office said “don’t eat them” unless the apples are certified Alar-free or organically grown.

Ellen Silbergeld, a highly respected scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, another environmental group, believes the value of exposing such hazards must be weighed against the possible harm.

Silbergeld, for example, “refused” to allow the defense fund to publish a study done two years ago about chemical contamination of breast milk for fear that mothers would panic and stop nursing their babies.

“It’s an extremely explosive issue. . . . It showed there are a number of synthetic chemicals found in breast milk and that the concentrations (vary),” Silbergeld said. “But overall the benefits (of nursing a baby) outweigh the risks.

“There is not enough information to reach a conclusion that would be helpful from a policy sense and certainly not for an individual, and the repercussions could be very serious,” she said. “So my sense is, if I don’t have enough information to say something sensible and/or constructive, I should be silent.”

About four years ago, Silbergeld reviewed the data that the NRDC later used to calculate the level of carcinogenicity of Alar and concluded that the information was too skimpy for drawing conclusions. As a “conservative” scientist, she said that she, unlike the NRDC, would not have attempted to quantify the precise risks of Alar.

But as a mother, she has gone out of her way to ensure that the apples she buys her children are Alar-free, and she said she is pleased that the potential harm of pesticides to children is receiving attention.

If the NRDC report had used the EPA’s more recent carcinogenicity findings, it would have concluded that 2.4 of every 100,000 children will get cancer because of exposure to Alar in early childhood instead of 2.4 of every 10,000.

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Assuming there are 20 million children under the age of 6, that would mean that at most 480 children would get cancer because of Alar exposure during their first six years of life instead of 4,800 as claimed by the NRDC. The carcinogenicity data, however, were not the only differences between the EPA and the NRDC studies, and the agency calculated that at most one out of every 100,000 children would get cancer because of Alar exposure. The government agency is expected to ban the chemical next year.

“Out of the 20 million children, one out of every four at current (cancer) rates is going to get cancer anyway,” said Bill Jordan, chief of policy staff of the EPA’s pesticide program. “One-thousandth of the total cancer rate in our society would be Alar-attributed if you accepted their findings.”

NRDC staffers insist that the organization has not been hurt by the attacks. In fact, they say that they have been overwhelmed by calls from the public wanting to help push for more pesticide controls and that they expect fund-raising to improve as a result. The crush was so intense last week that it was difficult to get through on the telephone to the NRDC’s Washington office.

If staff members admit to any regrets, it is that they failed to anticipate the media’s focus on apples and Alar, only one of eight chemicals highlighted in the report.

Meyerhoff, who has been with the NRDC since 1980, is blase about all the fuss. Decisions by school boards to pull apples temporarily from school lunches was appropriate even though the NRDC had never sought the move, he said.

“I think the school boards’ actions were an attempt to send a message to the state and federal regulators that they were displeased,” he said. “I think it sent the proper message.”


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