Alar Panic Shows Power of Media to Trigger Fear : Health: ‘60 Minutes’ broadcast created scare at time when the industry was already moving away from use of the chemical.
The warning--uttered on prime-time network television, against a backdrop of a giant apple marked with a skull and crossbones--was indeed ominous:
“The most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply is a substance sprayed on apples to keep them on the trees longer and make them look better.”
So said Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes” on Feb. 26, 1989, and so began a nationwide panic, fed by other media, which quickly followed “60 Minutes” 's lead with their own stories on the killer chemical daminozide (better known by its trade name--Alar).
Young children, the media reported, were especially vulnerable, because they tended to drink a lot of apple juice and because their digestive and immune systems were not fully developed.
But at the time of the “60 Minutes” broadcast--which was viewed by an estimated 40 million Americans--industry was already moving away from Alar, and the nation’s three major baby-food makers said they were using non-Alar apples.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an activist environmental group, wanted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban Alar and several other pesticides. When the group produced a report (“Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children’s Food”) condemning Alar, Newsweek rushed into print with the story before the report was officially released.
The report, Newsweek said, would “almost certainly generate frightening headlines.”
Indeed it did--three weeks later, right after “60 Minutes” aired its story. News media throughout the country--effectively manipulated by the Natural Resources Defense Council and aided by public appeals and congressional testimony from that well-known molecular biologist Meryl Streep--almost made it seem that one bite of an Alar-treated apple or one swig of juice made from Alar-treated apples would mean instant death.
Coverage of the Alar scare was “outrageous . . . completely alarmist,” says Marla Cone, who writes about the environment for the Los Angeles Times.
But Alar was a made-to-order media story. It had apples, kids and cancer. “A lot of (media) people were suckered in,” Cone says.
The media coverage produced a nationwide hysteria.
School boards in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta and many other cities banned apples and apple products from their cafeterias. Some parents raced after their children’s school buses to yank apples from their lunch boxes. Supermarkets came under intense pressure to remove apples form their shelves. Uniroyal, the manufacturer of Alar, pulled the product off the market. Sales of apples plummeted, forcing many farmers to dump their crops or give them away--costing the industry more than $100 million, according to economists’ estimates.
Reaction to the Alar scare “set a troubling precedent,” the Washington Post editorialized several weeks later. “A complicated scientific issue was allowed to be decided not by officials charged with protecting the public, on the basis of hard evidence, but by a frightened public acting on incomplete and often erroneous press reports.”
The EPA had expressed concern about the safety of Alar for many years before Newsweek and “60 Minutes” jumped on the story. But the agency had decided that test results were either flawed, contradictory or insufficiently conclusive to warrant an immediate ban and formal action was delayed, pending hearings in late 1990.
David Gelber, the producer of the “60 Minutes” Alar story and now the executive producer for ABC’s “Peter Jennings Reporting,” says EPA and scientific criticism of Alar convinced him the story was worth doing at the time.
Dr. John A. Moore, then acting administrator of the EPA, said on “60 Minutes” that Alar “should come off the market” because of what he had earlier described as “an inescapable and direct correlation” between exposure to Alar and “the development of life-threatening tumors.”
“The public had a right to know that was their view,” Gelber says.
Al Meyerhoff, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Fund, also defends the Alar story.
He says the apple industry launched a “concerted disinformation campaign” in an effort to persuade the media and consumers alike that Alar was not dangerous.
The media have a “tremendous problem,” Meyerhoff says, in trying to accurately and responsibly communicate risk. To be credible, they must avoid crying wolf too often. But to protect the public, they must also avoid what he calls “crying sheep"--falling prey to timidity and self-censorship when they’re criticized.
There have been conflicting reports on Alar since the initial controversy. In 1992, the EPA said its research showed that “long-term exposure to Alar poses unacceptable risks to public health . . . food use of daminozide posed an unreasonable risk of cancer to the public” (although Uniroyal’s withdrawal of Alar from the market had rendered moot the question of a ban on it).
But a panel of international experts has concluded that Alar is safe to eat as a trace residue in food, and both the California Department of Food and Agriculture and Britain’s Advisory Committee on Pesticides concluded that the risk of getting cancer from the small amount of Alar used on apples was minuscule.
In 1991, C. Everett Koop, the former U.S. Surgeon General, said, “If Alar ever posed a health hazard, I would have said so then and would say so now. When used in the regulated, approved manner, as Alar was before it was withdrawn in 1989, Alar-treated apple products posed no hazards to the health of children or adults.”
Dr. Richard Adamson, director of the division of cancer etiology at the National Cancer Institute, said the risk of eating an apple that had been properly treated with Alar was “certainly less than the risk of eating a well-done hamburger . . .”
Journalists are also divided on Alar.
“I think the people who complained about Alar (coverage) had a very good point, Peter Prichard, editor of USA Today, said in a recent interview. “I don’t think it was as dangerous as it was made out to be.”
But Rae Tyson, Prichard’s own environmental reporter, disagrees.
“I think that we’ve made some mistakes (covering environmental health issues),” Tyson says, “but I’m not sure Alar is one of them . . . I would defend the way we’ve covered it.”
So, was Alar completely harmless? Almost certainly not. It’s impossible to prove a negative; you cannot demonstrate in a laboratory that any substance will never harm anybody under any circumstances. Moreover, there is evidence that Alar, like so many other substances--natural and artificial--could cause cancer in humans at high doses. Even peanut butter, after all, contains a known carcinogen--aflatoxin.
Taking Alar off the market was ultimately a good decision, says Gregg Easterbrook, a contributing editor at Newsweek, who has written often on environmental issues. Alar didn’t do anything truly important, and if a “very small safety increase” has been gained by its removal, society is better for it, Easterbrook says.
Apple crops--and sales--have reached record levels recently, so no lasting damage has been done (except to any small farmers who went out of business in the months after the initial scare). But Easterbrook and others inside and outside the media are nonetheless critical of the frenzied fashion in which the Alar story was covered. Among other shortcomings, the media published few stories comparing the Alar risk to other risks or explaining how conflicting risk estimates for Alar were arrived at.
“To make a rational decision about Alar, the public needed to know” all this, says Sharon Friedman, head of the department of journalism at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and the author of a study on “Media, Risk Assessment and Numbers” just published in the summer issue of the journal “Risk: Health, Safety & Environment.”
“They did not get this information from most of the mass media,” Friedman says.
For many in the media, however, the Alar story became a turning point in their approach to the coverage of environmental and other risk issues.
“I’m struck by how often . . . (reporters) call me and say . . . ‘Is this something we should be concerned about or is this another Alar?’ ” says Paul Portney, vice president of Resources for the Future, a Washington think tank that specializes in environmental issues.
Keith Schneider, who writes about about environmental issues for the New York Times, says Alar coverage was “the beginning of the evolution of my thinking--was my coverage and (that of) others being led by a sort of dogma that wasn’t accurate?”
After Alar, Schneider says, he began asking newer, tougher questions about risk issues and proposals for eliminating risks--"How do you know? What data are you using? How much does this cost?”
The Great Alar Apple Scare
Parents nationwide panicked after media reports said apples were being treated with “the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply,” as “60 Minutes” put it.