YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — More than two decades after parents dumped apples from children's lunch boxes because of concerns about a chemical applied to the fruit, most researchers agree the crop is safer although most of it still carries pesticide residue.
Growers saw prices plunge after a 1989 television report led to widespread fears apples were coated in a cancer-causing chemical called Alar, used to enhance crunch and color. The public outcry led the government to ban some chemicals and increase oversight, while growers adopted new approaches to spraying apples and reduced the use of harsh chemicals.
But in 2005, the last year results were available, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found pesticide residues on 98 percent of the apples it tested. All the residue was at levels within federal guidelines.
Such statistics leave consumer groups and health experts conflicted.
"The mix of pesticides today is less toxic than it was 20 years ago," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president for policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group. "But we still have a lot of pesticides left over. I think we're due for another look at whether we're doing the best we can to protect the public from pesticides in food."
Few apple growers will forget the February 1989 "60 Minutes" episode that opened with a story about Alar, featuring an apple marked with a skull and crossbones. The report stemmed from a Natural Resources Defense Council study that concluded Alar posed a cancer danger, particularly to children.
Public outcry was immediate and some parents panicked — reports circulated about apple juice being poured down the drain and a mother sending police to stop her child's school bus to retrieve her lunch. Actress Meryl Streep took up the cause, demanding Alar be banned.
Some still question the science behind the report, arguing that consumers would have to eat many more apples than normal to get sick.
Dr. Lynn Goldman, a pediatrician who was one of the scientific reviewers for the 1989 study, declined to sign off on it, fearing in part that consumers could confuse long-term effects with immediate danger.
"I actually agreed with them that the Alar was probably breaking down into a carcinogen," said Goldman, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency's toxics program under the Clinton administration and is now a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"I didn't agree with the way they were communicating the risk," she said, "and I was worried that what they were doing was more alarmist than it needed to be."
Another reviewer, Frederica Perera, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, signed off on the findings.
"I think the report was a reasonable report," she said.
The EPA had already labeled Alar a probable carcinogen and its maker, Uniroyal Chemical Co., voluntarily withdrew it for use on U.S. food crops. EPA studies later showed Alar, while still a carcinogen, was only one-twentieth as potent as estimates in the report.
Today, Alar is applied only to nonedible, ornamental plants such as flowers in the U.S., but it is still approved for food crops in some countries.
Wendy Gordon, who co-chaired NRDC's Mothers and Others group with Streep, said the report's breakthrough was in improving pesticide standards for young children.
"The original standard was based on a healthy young adult male. Many years later, the regulation was changed, and the standard was changed to account for these more vulnerable populations," she said.
At the time of the report, red delicious and McIntosh apples were the most common varieties in the U.S., and growers applied Alar to both. The going price for a 42-pound box of red delicious applies fell from $15.46 in February 1989 to $8.29 by June that year.
Apple growers were shocked by the 1989 report, and for many, the Alar dispute still burns, said George Allan of Allan Bros. apple growers in Naches, Wash. Some growers still won't watch a Meryl Streep movie, he said, although he acknowledged enjoying her recent hit "Julie and Julia."
But growers learned from the experience, he said: "In the past 20 years, we've basically reinvented ourselves."
They worked with scientists to better understand pests and develop alternatives for controlling them. Federal regulations now require farm workers to wait longer before re-entering orchards where chemicals have been applied. The federal government also banned many harsh chemicals and limited the application of others before harvest.
"I don't know whether there are more or fewer pesticides in use today than there were 20 years ago," said Bill Jordan, the EPA's senior policy adviser for the Office of Pesticide Programs. "But the pesticide residues that are on apples today are safer."
Many growers also have planted new apple varieties that require less harsh chemicals to control pests or improve the fruit's quality. Red delicious apples, which required heavy treatment, now make up 30 percent of the crop, down from 70 percent in 1989.
Elisa Odabashian, West Coast director of Consumers Union, eats an apple a day. She grew up in Cashmere, a small river town surrounded by apple orchards near Wenatchee, a central Washington city billed as the Apple Capital of the World. She hesitates to criticize an industry that has supported family and friends, remarking on the strides made to improve safety.
"Is an apple with pesticide residue an unsafe product? I wouldn't call it that," she said. "We have advised that on products like apples, where you tend to eat the skin, that's a good candidate for buying organic."