By Donella Meadows
–July 15, 1993–
Remember Alar? It was a chemical used on apples to make them redder and to hold them on the tree longer. Alar was suspected of causing cancer, but the government did nothing about it until 1989, when the National Resources Defense Council and Meryl Streep stirred up a fuss. There was a scary segment about Alar on 60 Minutes. A “poisoned” apple appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Mothers were suddenly afraid to put apples in school lunch boxes.
By the time Alar was finally banned, growers with any eye for the market had already stopped using it. They’ve been growing apples handily without it ever since.
After the panic came the backlash. Infuriated pesticide makers accused the NRDC of frightening the public without cause. Alar became a symbol of environmental hysteria. An innocent chemical, lynched by eco-purists and movie stars — so goes the revisionist version of the story.
Behind both the scare story and the backlash story was the real story, which has finally come out in a report by the National Research Council (NRC). The story is about not Alar but all pesticides, and about how our regulatory process is inadequate to protect our children.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decides how much pesticide residue is “safe” in foods by assuming everyone eats an average adult diet. That assumption, unsurprisingly, does not hold true for children.
A growing child eats twice as much per pound of body weight as an adult — which means children get a double exposure to whatever pesticides are in foods.
Furthermore a typical child’s diet is simpler than an adult’s, more concentrated in basic foods such as milk, fruits, and vegetables. The average non-nursing infant consumes 20 times more apple juice per pound of body weight than does the average adult. That concentration makes pesticide exposure even higher.
Another difference is that when it comes to toxins, children are not simply small adults. Their cells are multiplying faster. Their metabolic rates are more rapid. Their immune systems are not mature. Their skins and lungs and stomach linings may absorb chemicals differently. The pediatricians and toxicologists who carried out the NRC study admit ignorance on this issue. “Little is known about children’s sensitivity to pesticides. Children may be more sensitive than adults to some pesticides, while being less or equally sensitive to others.”
All this would be of urgent concern, if the foods in our markets actually carried as much pesticide residue as the government permits them to. Small children could be ingesting from 2 to 200 times the EPA tolerance levels. Fortunately, though monitoring of pesticides in food is spotty, the data suggest that actual residue levels are far lower than tolerances.
Of 978 apples tested, for example, 125 contained the fungicide captan. The maximum concentration observed was 3.4 parts per million (ppm), while the EPA tolerance is 25 ppm. The insecticide chlorpyrifos was found in 16 out of 347 bananas, with a maximum concentration of 0.04 ppm, while the EPA permits 0.05 ppm. The worst example cited in the NRC report was for the pesticide EBDC in green peas — present in 49 out of 124 samples, and present at worst at a concentration of 23 ppm, while the EPA tolerance is only 7 ppm.
Our exposure to pesticides appears to be well below tolerance, usually. Our children are not being threatened on a regular basis. But legally they could be, and occasionally they are, and the NRC study points to worrying holes in our knowledge about diets, exposures, and toxicities to children.
You can see why the press did not run wild with this story. It is much more complex and less certain than Meryl Streep labelling apples as poison.
The NRC panel says that toxicity should be tested on immature animals as well as mature ones. Tolerances should be based on the food consumption of the most vulnerable groups, not the average. Measurements of pesticide residues should be improved and standardized. Tolerance limits should be set not for one pesticide at a time, but with the recognition that children (and grownups) are exposed to many pesticides at once, coming not just from food but from air, water, and soil.
The Clinton administration has already announced its intention to follow these recommendations. That will take time. The consequence should be that pesticide tolerances will be lowered. The administration intends to help farmers practice “integrated pest management,” using more natural controls and less pesticides. Studies by the NRC and others suggest that the use of pesticides could be cut at least in half without loss in crop yield. Organic farmers get high yields with no pesticides at all.
It’s a relief that the scientists, the press, and the government have finally told the pesticide story fully, received it openly, and begun to act on it. The only frustration is that this story was known, not in full detail, but certainly well enough to make these recommendations, at least as early as 1985. The NRDC was trying to make the general point in 1989, using Alar as just one example. Over the years, while the panel was studying, industry was resisting, and the press and the public were alternately sleeping and panicking, a lot of children have been growing up eating a lot of apples and bananas and peas.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993