Apples and Crossbones

Published June 1, 1999

In 1989, costuming oneself as an apple on Halloween would have befitted the times. That was the year of mass hysteria over Alar, a chemical product not otherwise noteworthy except for its usefulness to apple growers and apple consumers.

Alar was developed in the 1960s as a means of slowing the growth of plants. Its active ingredient is daminozide, a hormone-like chemical. Alar underwent two years of carcinogenicity testing on rats before the FDA approved it for commercial use in 1968. Alar’s usefulness lay largely in its ability to optimize the maturation of red apples and cherries.

In the 1970s, Dr. Bela Toth of the Eppley Institute for Research in Cancer, found:

  • at several times the “maximum tolerated dose” (MTD) for males (i.e., in quantities that might render an intrinsically un-injurious substance harmful), a breakdown product of Alar–UDMH–had caused tumors in the blood vessels, kidneys, livers, and lungs of mice; and
  • at several times the MTD, Alar itself had been responsible for a high tumor incidence in mice.

In 1978 the National Cancer Institute (NCI) published the results of a carcinogen bioassay of daminozide and concluded that it was a weak carcinogen. But daminozide’s carcinogenicity measurement was so trivial that EPA could not use the NCI data for quantitative risk assessment. Alar’s manufacturer, Uniroyal Chemical Company, Inc., sponsored several other carcinogen bioassays of daminozide, which were conducted according to EPA guidelines. No carcinogenicity was found.

Scientists on an EPA Science Advisory Panel in 1985 found the Toth studies faulty. Nevertheless, under pressure from the Natural Resources Defense Council, EPA asked Uniroyal to conduct carcinogenicity tests on UDMH alone, without daminozide. To comply with the agency’s instructions, the researchers gave UDMH to mice in amounts four to eight times the MTD–that is, 133,000 to 266,000 times the highest estimate for a preschooler’s daily intake of UDMH. This is analogous to drinking 19,000 quarts of juice made from Alar-treated apples every day–for life.

Eleven of the 52 mice that had been given UDMH daily at eight times the male MTD developed cancerous or noncancerous tumors. Eighty percent of the male mice died prematurely–not from cancer, but from amounts of UDMH that had rendered the chemical toxic. EPA acknowledged that the use of such large quantities of UDMH had made the study questionable. On February 1, 1989, the agency nevertheless ordered a phase-out of Alar use that was to conclude by July 31, 1990.

In early 1989, David Fenton of Fenton Communications, a public relations firm engaged by the NRDC, negotiated an exclusive deal with the producers of 60 Minutes to publicize the findings of a 1989 NRDC report. That collaboration spawned the 60 Minutes segment, “‘A’ Is for Apple.”

CBS aired the program that featured this segment on February 26, 1989. “‘A’ Is for Apple”–symbolized by an image of an apple with a superimposed skull and crossbones–opened with correspondent Ed Bradley’s assertion about daminozide: “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.” No one challenged this assertion on the program. The segment even included footage of a pediatric cancer ward.

In the days that followed the broadcast, the claims in the NRDC report were widely parroted in the media. Mass hysteria ensued, and apple markets rotted overnight. The NRDC, however, prospered. Fenton stated in an interview for Propaganda Review: “The [PR] campaign was designed so that revenue would flow back to NRDC from the public. The group sold a book about pesticides through a 900 number on the ‘Donahue’ show and to date 90,000 copies have been sold.” Fenton’s strategy succeeded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In June 1989, under pressure from apple growers–who were losing money regardless of whether they used Alar–Uniroyal ceased marketing Alar for use on foods. When the dust settled, apple-orchard proprietors had lost about $250 million; apple-product manufacturers, about $125 million; and U.S. taxpayers (via the U.S. Department of Agriculture), $15 million.

Many health authorities have publicly blasted the widespread Alar warnings of 1989 as false alarms. In 1989 the British government concluded that there “was no risk to health” from Alar or UDMH. In the same year a United Nations panel concluded that Alar was “not oncogenic [tumor-inducing] in mice” and that special concern over UDMH was unwarranted.

At a February 1992 press conference conducted by the American Council on Science and Health, Dr. C. Everett Koop stated that Alar “never did pose a health hazard.” Dr. Richard Adamson, former director of the NCI’s Division of Cancer Etiology has described the cancer risk from eating Alar-treated apples as “nonexistent.” Robert Scheuplein, director of the FDA’s Office of Toxicological Sciences, has stated that Alar is not a carcinogen.

Extremist environmentalists would have their story of Alar become a textbook success story of how the NRDC rid America of a threat to children. But the scientific consensus is that Alar, used in the FDA-approved manner, is not dangerous to anyone, and that those who engineered the false alarms about the chemical did so for self-aggrandizement.

Jack Raso is ACSH’s director of publications and editor-in-chief of its quarterly magazine, Priorities for Health ( Kenneth Smith is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.