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WRITING FOR THE MEDIA
Examples of Rapid Response
Alar on Apples

Alar issue: Alar is a growth-regulating hormone sprayed on apples to hold them on the tree longer and reduce bruising. Alar was voluntarily withdrawn from the U.S. market by its manufacturer, Uniroyal Chemical corporation, in 1989 after 10 years of controversy.

Amid the scientific and legal controversy, on February 26 and 27, 1989, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the CBS TV news show, 60 Minutes, released the findings of NRDC's two-year study, Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children's Food. The study covered the health risks from several pesticides, but CBS News chose to highlight only one aspect of the NRDC report: the cancer hazard of Alar on apples to children.

CBS displayed a skull and cross bones on an apple and told its viewers that Alar was a dangerous carcinogen. In response, some school boards pulled apples from their school menus, and apple sales plummeted in February, failing to recover until May.

The NRDC report was not just about Alar, but by stressing this pesticide in the first few minutes of its 60 Minutes program, CBS News skewed coverage to a point where people today think that NRDC focused its research on Alar alone.

Three groups responded immediately and negatively to NRDC's assessment of the Alar hazard to children: the government (EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture), Uniroyal, and the apple growers. Extremist libertarian journalists and consultants to the chemical industry later piled on to create the enduring mythology of the "Alar scare." A watershed of negative and unfair coverage ensued. Some examples:

Helping Stars Shine in Another Universe," article

"Health Scares That Weren't So Scary," article

Letter to the Editor Response

Another Letter to the Editor Response

Examples of Rapid Response: Alar on Apples

"Helping Stars Shine in Another Universe" Article

Los Angeles Times

February 23, 1996, Friday, Home Edition

THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION / MARC LACEY: HELPING STARS SHINE IN ANOTHER UNIVERSE

By MARC LACEY

(excerpt of longer text)

Of course, the idea of using celebrities to highlight causes is as old as Hollywood itself. Stars have beaten a path to the nation's capital for years and caused sensations at congressional hearings, state dinners and press events. But as Roll Call, the congressional trade paper, recently quipped, "The halls of Congress are littered with tales of celebrity embarrassment."

When stars stumble here, smug Washingtonians really guffaw, such as when Meryl Streep emotionally recounted how the chemical Alar causes cancer, which turned out to be false, or when Sharon Stone suggested that she fought off cancer by giving up caffeine.

Examples of Rapid Response: Alar on Apples

"Health Scares That Weren't So Scary" Article

The New York Times

August 18, 1998, Tuesday, Late Edition - Final

Correction Appended

SECTION: Section F; Page 7; Column 4; Science Desk; Health Page

LENGTH: 1108 words

HEADLINE: Personal Health; Health Scares That Weren't So Scary

BYLINE: By Jane E. Brody

(excerpt from longer article)

HOW often has your clock radio awakened you with the distressing news that something you eat, drink, breathe or do has just been shown in a new study to be a serious health hazard? And how often did it turn out to be a false alarm, unsupported by subsequent research?

The American Council on Science and Health, based in New York, recently updated and expanded its popular report, "Facts Versus Fears," reviewing what it considers the greatest unfounded health scares of the last five decades. Although controversy continues to rage about potential risks associated with some of these "scares," including Agent Orange and hormones in beef, most -- including those that resulted in serious economic damage and changes in public policy -- have been soundly discounted by subsequent studies.

The following review of some of the most prominent scares in recent decades serves as a cautionary tale that should help you realize why it is unwise to leap before you look more closely at what any new study actually means.

ALAR -- In 1989, the popular television show "60 Minutes," the Natural Resources Defense Council and the actress Meryl Streep denounced this chemical used to regulate the ripening of apples as "the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply" and said it was a cause of childhood cancer.

The accusation was based on a 1973 study in which a byproduct of Alar caused tumors in mice. The dosage used in the study was eight times greater than the so-called maximum tolerated dose, the amount above which tissue damage occurs even from innocent substances because of the high concentration.

Subsequent tests by the National Cancer Institute and the Environmental Protection Agency failed to show that Alar caused cancer. Only when mice were given extremely high doses, equivalent to 133,000 to 266,000 times the amount a preschool child might consume in a day in apples and apple juice, did any tumors result.

Still, millions of alarmed parents panicked and dumped untold gallons of apple juice and bushels of apples, the apple industry lost about $375 million, the Department of Agriculture lost another $15 million, countless children were given far less nutritious drinks in place of apple juice and Alar was taken off the market by its manufacturer.

Examples of Rapid Response: Alar on Apples

Letter to the Editor Response

The Washington Post

June 10, 1995, Saturday, Final Edition

SECTION: OP-ED; Pg. A16; LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

LENGTH: 335 words

HEADLINE: Alar on Apples: Harmful Indeed

Will the editors of The Post please get their facts straight on the issue of the pesticide alar? John Heritage's essay "When Environmentalists Go for the Throat" [op-ed, June 2] repeats the agriculture chemical industry's line that citizens were frightened from eating apples because of "ill-founded environmental claims that the fruit was pesticide-poisoned."

Ill-founded? On two occasions after its 1989 alar study was released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), further studies by the Environmental Protection Agency's scientific advisory board prompted EPA to reaffirm alar as a probable human carcinogen. Indeed, EPA set a "zero tolerance" for alar, meaning no foods can contain any residues of the pesticide whatsoever.

EPA's decision was validated last year by yet another study -- this time a report by the National Academy of Sciences (hardly a bunch of environment extremists) that strongly affirmed the exact premise of NRDC's original study -- namely, that infants and young children are more susceptible to cancer-causing agents in food. Furthermore, the findings led the National Academy of Sciences to call for an overhaul of regulatory procedures better to protect children.

"NRDC was absolutely on the right track when they excoriated the regulatory agencies for having allowed a toxic material such as alar to stay on the market for 25 years," said Philip Landrigan, chairman of the NAS unit that conducted the study.

Despite all this unimpeachable scientific support for NRDC's study, the media have consistently fallen for the agricultural chemical industry's lavishly financed propaganda, repeating the "scare" charge until it has become a standard anti-environment "fact."

Given the current Congress's eagerness to spread myths in order to justify its assault on our natural resources and public health, is it too much to ask The Post to stop adding fuel to the fire?

Examples of Rapid Response: Alar on Apples

Another Letter to the Editor Response

August 20, 1998

The Editors
The New York Times
229 W. 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036-3959

To the Editor:

Jane Brody's "Health Scares That Weren't So Scary" (August 18) is the most astonishing piece of misinformation I have seen in all my years of dedicated reading of the New York Times.

Relying solely on a report by the industry-funded American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), Ms. Brody failed to follow the advice she gave her readers: "...it is unwise to leap before you look more closely at what any new study actually means."

Had Ms. Brody even bothered simply to look into the files on Alar, for example, she could never have stated that "Subsequent tests by the National Cancer Institute and the Environmental Protection Agency failed to show that Alar caused cancer."

Oh? On two occasions after the 1989 release of the Alar report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the EPA impaneled independent scientific advisory boards to evaluate Alar. Both reaffirmed Alar as a probable human carcinogen.

EPA's findings were later validated by yet another study--this time by the National Academy of Sciences (hardly a group of environmental alarmists). The NAS study affirmed NRDC's premise--that infants and young children are particularly susceptible to cancer-causing agents in food.

The Academy considered these findings so serious that it called for an overhaul of regulatory procedures to better protect children.

A check of the files would have also enabled Ms. Brody to learn that EPA staff under both the Reagan and Bush Administrations had been pressing to ban Alar from food, and that New York and Massachusetts had already done so, long before the NRDC report. The American Academy of Pediatrics also urged the Federal government to ban Alar in food. The weight of all this evidence resulted in the Bush Administration doing just that.

Not only did Ms. Brody fail to report any of the above, she also committed the unpardonable journalistic sin of omitting any mention of her source's funders, who happen to include Exxon, Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, General Mills and even Uniroyal, the manufacturer of Alar.

She might better have followed the example of an earlier New York Times health reporter, Warren Leary, who described ACSH as "a New York research group that often supports industry positions on regulating chemicals."

Ms. Brody's column will do incalculable damage to efforts to protect the public from dangerous chemicals, for it will be used by agribusiness and the chemical industry as "proof" that the most important newspaper in the nation sanctions the claims of industry-sponsored skeptics.

The Times owes it to its readers to print a prominent correction of Ms. Brody's errors and omissions on the Alar issue.

Sincerely,

Name
Title/Affiliation


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