In 1989 the American apple industry was sent reeling by an unexpected blow — a lurid “60 Minutes” segment that supposedly exposed the cancer-causing dangers of Alar, a chemical used by some apple growers to synchronize the ripening of fruit. The over-the-top alarmist segment seared into the minds of consumers across the country the image of an apple branded with a skull-and-crossbones.
Consumers reacted quickly, and apple sales plummeted. U.S. growers — including those who had never used Alar — suffered substantial financial losses, with some even forced to declare bankruptcy. As a result, the federal government spent nearly $10 million to support struggling apple growers, with the total impact on growers later found to be upwards of $100 million.
Extensive scientific research subsequently failed to substantiate the supposed risks of Alar at the levels in which it was found in food, exposing the scare as a fraud. The panic was concocted by the environmental alarmist group, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which benefited financially from this irresponsible PR stunt. In fact, the Wall Street Journal would later reprint an internal memo from NRDC’s PR firm, admitting that they “designed [the Alar campaign] so that revenue would flow back to the Natural Resources Defense Council from the public.” NRDC hit the jackpot, raking in more than $700,000.
NRDC’s historical revisionism concerning Alar is breathtaking — and nauseating. On “60 Minutes” in 1989, NRDC’s Janet Hathaway claimed that Alar is “the most potent cancer-causing chemical in our food supply today …” and “what we’re talking about is a cancer-causing agent used on food that the EPA knows is going to cause cancer for thousands of children.” But this is how that original message was reinterpreted by NRDC in response to a 2000 University of California study which showed that Alar’s supposedly carcinogenic metabolite UDMH is less of a cancer risk than tap water: “The message of that  report might have been muddled by the media, and the public might have over-reacted, because we never said there was an immediate danger from Alar.” Oh, please.
NRDC continues to peddle junk science and mislead consumers — and fatten their own coffers — by raising unfounded public health fears, to the detriment of scientific and technological innovation. Their campaigns in recent years have included attacks on the plastics additive bisphenol-A (BPA), a ubiquitous chemical used safely and successfully for more than 50 years in polycarbonate plastics as well as in the lining of canned food to prevent spoilage and bacterial contamination.
When it comes to BPA, NRDC is on the wrong side of both science and ethics. (And, one hopes, of history.)
Research by U.S. government laboratory scientists, the results of which were announced last year, should have put the scare-mongering over BPA to rest. The scientists conducted a human exposure study which found that because of the way BPA is processed in the body, it would be nearly impossible for it to cause health effects in adults, children or even fetuses.
The latest tactic in the activists’ crusade against the chemical was a lawsuit against the FDA for supposedly failing to act on a previously filed NRDC petition that had asked the FDA to ban BPA. This lawsuit came in spite of multiple comprehensive reviews of the body of scientific research on BPA, none of which found justification for such a ban. In order to settle the suit, the FDA agreed to respond by March 30. It did so on that date, denying the petition to ban BPA from all food and drink containers, because the science does not justify such an action.
Anti-science, anti-technology groups like NRDC have made BPA a political football that the regulatory agencies have kicked around endlessly, and at great expense. Even the fact that additional research on BPA is in progress was not enough to dissuade the NRDC from its litigious strategy. The Obama administration had (wastefully) dedicated $30 million for additional FDA research into the effects of BPA over two years, the results of which are still not complete. But the NRDC is so intent on banning BPA from the marketplace that they filed their lawsuit against the FDA before the new data were available.
It’s clear that for its own selfish purposes, NRDC wishes to turn BPA into a 21st-century version of the Alar debacle, and the organization seems content to do so on the backs of taxpayers, by forcing needless and expensive reviews through legal legerdemain. Clearly, the NRDC apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and former director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, is the Robert Wesson Fellow of Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover institution.