Rachel #535: The Alar Rebellion of 1989
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. RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #535 .
. ---February 27, 1997--- .
. HEADLINES: .
. THE ALAR REBELLION OF 1989 .
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LAST IN A SERIES--THE ALAR REBELLION OF 1989
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
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.
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.
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
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. 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. 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. 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), 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
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. 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."
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 1890Risks."
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."
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
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.
(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 For example, see the final chapter in Lawrence Goodwyn, THE
POPULIST MOMENT (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
 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).
 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)
 Beth Rosenberg, "The Story of the Alar Ban: Politics and
Unforeseen Consequences," NEW SOLUTIONS (Winter, 1996), pg. 39.
 Beth Rosenberg, cited above, pgs. 40, 46.
 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.
 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,
 Cronkite quoted in Howard Kurtz, "Dr. Whelan's Media
Operation," COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW Vol. 8, No. 6 (March
1990), pgs. 43-47.
 See SCIENCE Vol. 244 (April 7, 1989), pg. 9; SCIENCE Vol. 259
(March 26, 1993), pg. 1807; SCIENCE Vol. 261 (July 23, 1993), pg.
 Henry I. Miller, "A Need to Reinvent Biotechnology
Regulation at EPA," SCIENCE Vol. 266 (December 16, 1994), pg.
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;
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