'Son of Alar': The New Pesticide Scare Campaign

In 1989, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a major environmentalist group, launched a nationwide panic over the presence on apples of alar, a chemical growth agent. On TV shows such as “60 Minutes” and “Donahue,” and in major women’s magazines, NRDC (with the aid of its expert consulting toxicologist, actress Meryl Streep) claimed that alar “might” eventually cause thousands of lifetime cancer cases due to apple consumption by preschoolers.green_apple

This carefully choreographed publicity stunt terrified parents, cost alar’s manufacturer millions, caused over $100 million in losses to apple growers–all while creating a fundraising bonanza for the NRDC.

The scare campaign was based on junk science–on experiments on laboratory rodents in which dose levels were so absurdly high that the animals were dying of simple poisoning. These tests were so shoddy that an independent panel of scientists convened by the EPA–called a Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP)–dismissed the findings as scientifically worthless.

Under political pressure to find something, however, the EPA ordered new tests on mice at dose levels that, again, were so outrageously high that 80 percent of the animals were poisoned to death. Not surprisingly, this overdosing produced the tumors the agency was looking for, and gave it the excuse to ban all use of the chemical.

I spent six months investigating this scam for a special report that appeared in the October 1990 Reader’s Digest. After its publication, many people–echoing the rock group The Who–concluded that “we won’t be fooled again” by environmentalist fear-mongers.

But now a new pesticide panic is underway. Once again, it is being incited by the NRDC, with additional litigation pressure from trial lawyers. Once again, the scare campaign rests on studies that amount to little more than “junk science.” This time, though, the target is an herbicide that plays a far more significant role in agriculture: atrazine.

Atrazine is a valuable weed-killer used to protect corn, sugar cane, and other crops. The EPA has estimated that farming without atrazine would cost corn farmers $28 an acre–the difference between getting by and going bankrupt for thousands of farms across the Midwest–and would cause sugar-cane crop losses from 10 to 40 percent. The overall cost to U.S. farmers would top $2 billion dollars annually.

Not only is atrazine effective, it is safe. The chemical has been on the market for half a century, during which time its safety has been tested to death–some 6,000 studies, here and abroad, including reviews by the World Health Organization and other international bodies.

Following a dozen years of exhaustive examination of scientific evidence about claims of possible health problems stemming from the chemical, the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs reported to Congress on February 16, 2005: “After a very careful assessment, EPA’s current view is that the available studies do not adequately demonstrate such effects. A panel of independent, external experts, the SAP, supports EPA’s position.” Concluding that cumulative risks posed “no harm that would result to the general U.S. population, infant, children or other . . . consumers,” the EPA re-registered atrazine for use in 2006.

But that was then; this is now:

* The NRDC is beating the drum to ban this critical herbicide. Last September, it released another of its junk-science reports, Atrazine: Poisoning the Well, declaring that the chemical was “linked” to all sorts of “potential” health problems, and raising the specter of unsafe concentrations in ground water. This, despite the fact that the EPA safety margin, which limits atrazine concentrations in drinking water to no more than three parts per billion, is set more than one thousand times below the threshold of any health concerns. Just as it did in engineering its alar hoax, NRDC is enlisting green sympathizers in the media to help terrorize the public. For example, it supplied material to a New York Times reporter for an article under the panic-provoking title, “Debating How Much Weed Killer Is Safe in Your Water Glass.”

* One month after NRDC released its report, the EPA ordered that atrazine–re-registered in 2006–become subject to re-re-registration. They specifically cited the NRDC report and New York Times scare piece as their reason for doing so. This, too, echoes the case of alar, when EPA, lacking any sound evidence to ban its targeted chemical, kept demanding new tests and reviews until it finally manufactured some lame excuse to do so.

* In addition to this chemophobic cadre, personal-injury trial lawyers, led by the notorious Texas law firm of Baron & Budd, have jumped in to cash in. Attorney Stephen Tillery, operating in the litigation paradise of Madison County, Illinois, is engineering class-action lawsuits against atrazine’s manufacturer and various users. Their claims of atrazine’s “harm” rest on junk-science rodent studies already rejected by the EPA’s expert Scientific Advisory Panel.

All this has left atrazine’s beleaguered manufacturer, Syngenta Crop Protection, Inc., fighting to defend its product and reputation on multiple fronts. The prospect of a ban has also left struggling farmers, who rely on this herbicide to spare their crops, worried about their financial survival. If it occurs, then an economy deep in recession would take an additional hit from crop failures and soaring food prices.

But, bad as the immediate economic costs would be, the long-term regulatory ramifications would be much worse.

To institute their green fantasies of organic agriculture and returning farmland to “nature,” the NRDC and its allies aim to make toxicology safety thresholds so stringent that no agrochemicals could past legal muster. That’s precisely why they’ve singled out atrazine. As the Wall Street Journal noted recently, “The environmental lobby also figures that if it can take down atrazine with its long record of clean health, it can get the EPA to prohibit anything.”

Seen from this perspective, the alar scare was just the opening salvo in the environmentalist barrage against man-made chemicals. Today’s atrazine scare–as Yogi Berra might put it–is “déjà vu all over again.” And Yogi might also ask those of us burdened by this unending regulatory onslaught: “How do you like them apples?”


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