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#535 - Last in a Series -- the Alar Rebellion of 1989, 26-Feb-1997

In the U.S. in 1989, an angry public forced an end to the use of Alar
on apples, an event that should go down in history as the Alar
Rebellion, not the Alar Scare. Alar is a growth-regulating hormone
manufactured by Uniroyal corporation. The story of Alar is one of only
a few small victories for democratic government that we can recall at
the national level in the late-20th-century U.S.

Alar holds apples on the tree longer than is natural, making apples a
deeper red and giving apple growers a better chance of yielding a
uniform crop with less effort. From 1965 to 1989, at least half the
apples in the U.S. were sprayed with Alar. Unfortunately, in the period
1973 to 1977, lab tests showed that Alar, and its byproduct UDMH,
caused cancer in mice and hamsters. In 1984, the U.S. government's
National Toxicology Program categorized UDMH as a "probable human
carcinogen" (a designation that has not changed to this day). (See REHW
#530-#533.)

After these facts became known, no ethical person could justify putting
Alar/UDMH into applesauce or apple juice, which are consumed in large
amounts by children. However, as we have seen, corporations have no way
to sense, or act upon, ethical values. (For example, see REHW #308,
#388, and #455.) On the contrary, the corporate form itself is a legal
fiction specifically created to PREVENT ethical and moral values (or
personal liability and responsibility) from contaminating financial
decisions. The corporation was invented to exploit the planet and its
inhabitants as efficiently and dispassionately as possible, and to
solidify unprecedented power in the hands of the managers of such an
entity, and nothing else. As a legal matter, corporations MUST return a
profit to their investors or they can (and will) be sued for breach of
fiduciary trust. If a few workers or children must be sacrificed to
return a profit to Uniroyal's investors, then those workers and
children will be sacrificed. This is just the way it is after a
sovereign people has allowed the corporate form to usurp its
sovereignty, to dominate its government, as the people of the U.S. did
approximately 100 years ago.[1]

The basic public health policy question raised by Alar was this: Should
the nation's children be placed in harm's way just to make the apple
business a bit more profitable for apple-growing corporations? Uniroyal
and its helpmates in government had one answer to this question, and
the public had a different answer. Putting possibly-cancer-causing
chemicals on apples made no sense to the public, and the Alar Rebellion
really began in 1984 when apple sales dropped 30% after EPA [U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency] announced Alar caused cancer in
animals. Apple sales would remain 30% below normal until late 1989.[2]

Government officials learned about Alar's carcinogenicity in the period
1973 to 1977, but by 1989 the government had still been unable to ban
Alar from apples. (See REHW #530-#533.) Indeed, government had not even
been able to BEGIN a process that, some day, might eventually lead to
the banning of Alar. Starting about 1980, the Alar story revealed
clearly that the nation's laws had been written --indeed the entire
apparatus we know as "regulation" had been created in the period 1885-
1915 --not to protect public health but to protect the property rights
of the corporate manufacturers and users of industrial poisons. The
real purpose of government "regulation" as we know it is to install a
government bureaucracy as a barrier, a spongy buffer, between the
sovereign people and the corporations that have usurped their
sovereignty.

On February 1, 1989, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]
announced that new data, from studies conducted by Uniroyal corporation
itself, confirmed that Alar/UDMH caused cancer in mice; simultaneously,
EPA announced that it was "accelerating the process that will propose
cancellation of the food uses of" Alar.[3] Such a proposal might, or
might not, succeed in banning Alar after a decade-long battle in the
courts. This announcement confirmed that government was unable to
protect public health by acting decisively on the weight of the
scientific evidence to prevent corporations from putting poisons in our
food.

When an environmental group (Natural Resources Defense Council) and a
national TV network (CBS) effectively publicized the facts about Alar
in late February, 1989, the general public reacted swiftly, cutting its
apple purchases by 50% to 60%, essentially boycotting apples. The Alar
Rebellion had begun in earnest. It was a text-book case of angry
consumers expressing their preferences in the marketplace. Adam Smith
would have been proud. By June, 1989, the apple growers were on their
knees, actually BEGGING the EPA to remove the temptation to use Alar by
making it illegal.[4] Many apple growers had tried for a decade to rein
in their own appetites and forswear the use of Alar, and some had
succeeded. However many apple growers are organized as corporations and
corporations cannot easily do what is right unless it is also
profitable.

Our federal government is similarly incapable of doing the right thing,
principally because it is held captive by corporations. Even when
BEGGED by the users of Alar to ban the chemical in the spring of 1989,
the government was not capable of doing it. However, in the summer of
1989, Uniroyal made a strategic decision to take Alar off the U.S.
market by November, 1989, thus removing public concerns about Alar and
ending the government's public display of weakness. It probably would
not help maintain subtle corporate dominion if the people saw their
government paralyzed and held hostage for another decade by a single
corporation like Uniroyal. It was in Uniroyal's (and the chemical
industry's) best interests if Uniroyal caved in to the public will.
Uniroyal benefitted indirectly because the corporation had been getting
a bad name for poisoning children and the voluntary withdrawal of Alar
refurbished the corporation's public image. It is worth noting that
Uniroyal's profits from Alar did not diminish because its production of
Alar did not diminish.[5] Uniroyal had used the period 1980-1989 to
develop markets for Alar in 71 foreign countries. Of course a few
children are now being sacrificed each year in those countries
(according to the weight of the available scientific evidence and up-
to-date risk assessments[6]), but those children cannot be Uniroyal
corporation's concern. Uniroyal retained its image in the U.S. and its
profits from abroad, so the Alar Rebellion did not harm this giant
"legal person without a soul or a conscience" one whit.

We hasten to point out that the individuals within Uniroyal corporation
are not bad people, or evil. They are simply captives within an
institution they cannot fully control. The law of the corporation does
not permit human concerns about children's health to find expression in
corporate policies if such human concerns conflict with pecuniary
exigencies, i.e., the bottom line.

From the viewpoint of the permanent government in the U.S. (which is
not elected), the Alar Rebellion set a very bad precedent: the general
public rising up to stop a corporation from poisoning the food supply
could hardly promote the continued dominion of corporations over the
people. Who knows what the people would be demanding next if the Alar
Rebellion went unchallenged?

The chemical industry, the scientific establishment (particularly the
American Association for the Advancement of Science) and the transitory
(elected) government all unleashed full-scale attacks on NRDC, the
environmental group that wrote the report on Alar, and on CBS, which
publicized the report, but most of all on the "hysterical" public which
had stopped buying apples.

The chemical industry dumped money into its "independent" "scientific"
propaganda organization, Elizabeth Whelan's American Council on Science
and Health (ACSH) (see REHW #534). The ACSH issued 3 reports on Alar
during 1990 to 1995, each report accompanied by great hoopla to attract
press attention, including "press briefings" at the National Press Club
in Washington, D.C.[7] Each report retold the Alar story the way the
chemical industry wants it to be remembered: a small environmental
group using unsound science frightened the public out of its wits and
forced the government to ban a chemical that never harmed anyone.

ACSH's propaganda campaign included paying Walter Cronkite --arguably
the most famous and prestigious news "personality" in America --$25,000
to narrate a TV documentary about Alar called BIG FEARS, LITTLE RISKS,
in which only chemical industry supporters appeared on camera. Cronkite
himself said of the documentary, "It was meant to be propaganda."[8]

The American Association for the Advancement of Science likewise began
a propaganda campaign to discredit the public's action against Alar.
The editorial staff of SCIENCE magazine had long been dominated by Phil
Abelson and Dan Koshland, who brought a strong Libertarian bias to
their work. Time after time, these men lashed out at the public for
forcing an end to Alar. Their editorials have titles like, "Scare of
the Week," "The Great Overcoat Scare," and "Toxic Terror; Phantom
Risks."[9] People who know the work of Abelson and Koshland know them
as Libertarian extremists and take their editorial rants with a guffaw
of astonished disbelief. However, for Alar, SCIENCE went beyond
editorials and opened its inside columns to the propagandists. For
example, here is how the Alar Rebellion was described in SCIENCE in
1994: "In the late 1980s, in response to a widespread media campaign
waged primarily by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the EPA
pressured apple growers to abandon the use of the plant growth
regulator Alar, an agricultural chemical that permits apples to ripen
uniformly and increases yield. EPA's capitulation to environmentalists'
demands conflicted with the agency's own scientific findings."[10]

Every part of every sentence of this retelling is wrong. In sum,
SCIENCE printed a pack of lies about Alar, but they appeared under the
imprimatur of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,
so reporter after reporter has told and retold these lies until they
have become "the truth" in the national consciousness.

The Alar Rebellion showed that science (and SCIENCE) in the late 20th
century can be turned into effective propaganda tools when the powers-
that-be feel threatened by the public taking action to curb corporate
poisonings. The mass media--dominated by fewer than 25 huge
corporations--are easily (even willingly) misled by a chorus of old,
white men in lab coats chanting, "Alar is completely safe, the people
are hysterical. Housewives should stay in their place --Alar is a
miracle." Cheerleader Elizabeth Whelan is prancing with baton.

But the people are not fooled. Partly as a result of the Alar
Rebellion, people now know that corporate chemicals of all kinds are
making them and their children sick in numerous ways, and that the
government is playing along.

No, people are not fooled. They may not yet see a way to erase from the
face of the earth the institution that is responsible for their
distress: the huge, publicly-traded corporation. But that time will
come. Indeed, if the human species is to survive, that time must come.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] For example, see the final chapter in Lawrence Goodwyn, THE
POPULIST MOMENT (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[2] Eileen O. van Ravenswaay and John P. Hoehn, STAFF PAPER: THE IMPACT
OF HEALTH RISK ON FOOD DEMAND [NO. 90-31] (East Lansing, Michigan:
Department of Agricultural Economics, East Lansing, Michigan, June
1990).

[3] Al Heier, "EPA Accelerates Process to Cancel Daminozide [Alar] Uses
on Apples; Extends Tolerance," EPA ENVIRONMENTAL NEWS [press release]
February 1, 1989. Heier can be reached at (202) 260-4374.

[4] Beth Rosenberg, "The Story of the Alar Ban: Politics and Unforeseen
Consequences," NEW SOLUTIONS (Winter, 1996), pg. 39.

[5] Beth Rosenberg, cited above, pgs. 40, 46.

[6] Adam Finkel, "Toward Less Misleading Comparisons of Uncertain
Risks: The Example of Aflatoxin and Alar," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
PERSPECTIVES Vol. 103, No. 4 (April 1995), pgs. 376-385.

[7] Kenneth Smith, ALAR: ONE YEAR LATER (New York: American Council on
Science and Health, March, 1990). And: Kenneth Smith, ALAR: THREE YEARS
LATER (New York: American Council on Science and Health, February,
1992). And: Kenneth Smith, ALAR: FIVE YEARS LATER (New York: American
Council on Science and Health, February, 1994).

[8] Cronkite quoted in Howard Kurtz, "Dr. Whelan's Media Operation,"
COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW Vol. 8, No. 6 (March 1990), pgs. 43-47.

[9] See SCIENCE Vol. 244 (April 7, 1989), pg. 9; SCIENCE Vol. 259
(March 26, 1993), pg. 1807; SCIENCE Vol. 261 (July 23, 1993), pg. 407.

[10] Henry I. Miller, "A Need to Reinvent Biotechnology Regulation at
EPA," SCIENCE Vol. 266 (December 16, 1994), pg. 1815.

Descriptor terms: alar; apples; pesticides; american council on science
and health; elizabeth whelan; philip abelson; daniel koshland;
daminozide; udmh; carcinogens; science magazine; propaganda; alar
rebellion; uniroyal; corporations; regulation; national toxicology
program; acsh; libertarianism; epa; nrdc; natural resources defense
council; walter cronkite; american association for the advancement of
science;