This week marks the 10th anniversary of the Alar apple scare, in which many American consumers were driven into a panic following the release of a report by an environmental organization claiming that apples containing the chemical Alar posed a serious health threat to preschoolers. The report was disseminated through a PR campaign and bypassed any legitimate form of scientific peer review. Introduced to the American public by CBS' ''60 Minutes,'' the unsubstantiated claims in the report led some school districts to remove apples from their school lunch programs and unduly frightened conscientious parents trying to develop good eating habits for their children.
Despite assurances from the government that consumers were not facing real risks by eating apples, regulators were trumped by media coverage indicating the opposite. So much for the voice of science. The one silver lining in this cloud of recklessness was that many media representatives realized after the fact that they had been duped into covering a bogus story and would need to apply greater scrutiny in the future. Or so I thought.
Last month, Consumers Union (the folks who this month also report on 27-inch televisions, mutuals funds and dishwashers in their magazine, Consumer Reports) released a report warning consumers of the perils of consuming many fruits and vegetables that frequently contained ''unsafe'' levels of pesticide residues. This was especially true for children, they claimed. Like its predecessor 10 years earlier, the Consumers Union report received no legitimate scientific peer review and the public's first exposure to it was through news coverage.
Stories with headlines such as ''Fruits, Vegetables Found Overloaded With Pesticides'' warned that children consuming a single peach or an apple could be exposed to dangerous levels of poisons.
Not only does such reporting potentially drive children from consuming healthful fruits and vegetables, the conclusions were based on a misleading interpretation of what constitutes a ''safe'' level of exposure. Briefly, the authors used values known as the ''chronic reference doses,'' set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as their barometers of safety. Used appropriately, these levels represent the maximum amount of pesticide that could be consumed daily for life without concern. For a 70-year lifetime, for example, consumers would have to ingest this average amount of pesticide every day for more than 25,000 days. It is clear, as the report points out, that there are days on which kids may be exposed to more; it is also clear that there are many more days when exposure is zero. Had the authors more appropriately calculated the cumulative exposures for which the safety standards are meant to apply, there would have been no risks and no headlines.
Parents should feel proud, rather than guilty, of providing fruits and vegetables for their children. It is well established that a diet rich in such foods decreases the risk of heart disease and cancer. Such benefits dramatically overwhelm the theoretical risks of tiny amounts of pesticides in food. So keep serving up the peaches, apples, spinach, squash, grapes and pears, and lay off the junk food and the junk science.
San Francisco Chronicle Opinion Section March 3, 1999