Eat Apples -- Give Up Junk Food and Junk Science
By Carl K. Winter
Copyright 1999 San Francisco Chronicle
March 3, 1999
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
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
television, 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
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
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.
Carl K. Winter is a UC Davis toxicologist who directs the Food Safe Program.
His program receives no funding from the agricultural, food or chemical