Meryl Streep, a proud Vassar grad, recently received a Distinguished Alumni Award from her alma mater. But rather than stress her stellar career as an actor, she discussed an earlier moment as a citizen-scientist. “Once you know how to search out and credit the facts around certain problems, you are called on by your conscience to act on them. The Vassar conscience rings a bell in your head; it’s a call to action in your heart.” The problem? Alar.
“Since my kids at the time were basically mainlining apple juice and applesauce, and I was fairly celebrated for my pies, this did alarm me,” Streep said. She helped launch a grassroots organization, Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet, that joined with scientists from the Natural Resources Defense Council to warn of the dangers of the chemical.”
The Alar scare has it all, a celebrity spokesperson, a regulatory system that, try as it might, has an implicit bias in its determination, a “consumer” organization using the media to amplify their interpretation of the data, and of course, a press more than willing to sacrifice nuanced understanding for fear, especially fear of hurting “the children.”
A bit of historical background
Alar is the trade name for daminozide, “a chemical used to keep fruit firm and full-colored beyond its natural shelf life.” It has not been used in the US since the original “scare” caused manufacturers to voluntarily stop its use in 1989.
When sprayed on crops, it breaks down into harmless succinic acid and a more concerning chemical, 1, 1-dimethylhydrazine, which had been found in animal studies to have “carcinogenic activity.” Those 1985 studies were referred to the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Panel. The panel was new; a lack of Congressional funding had removed the board in 1981. It was reconstituted after refunding in 1983, and by the EPA's administrative protocols included a diverse set of experts.
The data consisted of seven animal studies, each with weak evidence of an association of alar with carcinogenic activity. The EPA’s technical staff claimed that the aggregate of this data required action, and the manufacturer’s experts argued that an aggregate of weak data remains weak – the “causal chain” is no stronger than its weakest link. The SAP did not conclude that Alar was carcinogenic at that time.
The NRDC took another approach, presenting their conclusions directly to the public and convincing two large supermarket chains to stop selling Alar-treated apples. Ultimately, consumer pressure, manifested by a dramatic reduction in the sale of apples, led growers to voluntarily stop Alar use long before the EPA issued its final regulatory findings of “possible carcinogenicity.” 
Four theories have been put forward for the waffling on Alar.
- A technological failure – using an imprecise methodology to generate precise conclusions.
- A social construct – “that all claims-making in science is influenced in part by subjective considerations…. The choice of conventions for interpreting uncertain evidence, leading risk assessors to produce different, perhaps equally, valid accounts of scientific 'truth' on the basis of the same physical observations.”
- Imperfect participation – “the interests that should have participated in constructing a genuine accommodation about the risk were not adequately represented.”
- Regulatory capture – where one group of special interests in regulation, which can be consumers just as much as manufacturers, has sufficient control over the regulatory process to control the outcome.
The position of the American Council on Science and Health was that the science underlying the regulatory debate was flawed. The study that ultimately triggered the EPA review utilized doses of alar 35,000 times greater than human exposure. Even the NRDC, which issued its own report, felt that the media concern was hyperbolic.
“The scare came about, said Lawrie Mott, a senior scientist for the environmental group, because news organizations distorted and simplified the findings. "Our report did not lack context or perspective," she said. "But most of the press reports did."
But perhaps those are crocodile tears since the NRDC hired a publicity firm to publicize their results. The PR firm's president was quite clear on his objectives:
"Our goal was to create so many repetitions of NRDC’s message that average American consumers (not just the policy elite in Washington) could not avoid hearing it, from many different media outlets within a short period of time," he wrote. "The idea was for the 'story' to achieve a life of its own, and continue for weeks and months to affect policy and consumer habits."
Here are a few of the articles on Alar from our archives:
Our booklet on Alar
 The New York Times reported that Washington apple growers, who produced 60% of the US crop, lost $125 million in sales during the height of the media concern.
Sources: EPA's Regulation of Daminozide: Unscrambling the Messages of Risk Science, Technology, and Human Values DOI: 10.1177/01622439960210020
NY Times, 1991, Apple Growers Bruised and Bitter After Alar Scare