So, now that all has been said and done, are apples safe to eat?
Yes, says Consumers Union, even though it found Alar residues in 32 of 45 apple juices recently analyzed.The Natural Resources Defense Council, which brought the Alar problem to the public's attention, also says it does not advocate eliminating apples or other fresh fruits and vegetables from American diets.
"The risk of eating apples is close to negligible while the nutritional value is great," said Dr. Clark Heath, vice president of epidemiology and statistics for the American Cancer Society.
NRDC took its concern about the carcinogenic properties of Alar to the public via "60 Minutes" and the "Donahue" show, putting fear into the hearts of parents when it proclaimed that America's children are at a greater risk of contracting cancer during their lifetimes because the legal limits for Alar residues are set for adults, not children.
Alar, a trade name for daminozide, is a growth regulator that has been used on apples to promote firmness, reduce spoilage in storage, enhance color and prevent the fruit from falling off the trees when ripe.
In the May issue of "Consumer Reports," CU says it is safe to feed apples to children.
"Raw apples are a good source of dietary fiber and a much more healthful snack than, say, a candy bar," says the magazine. "Cities that pulled apples out of school cafeterias overreacted to the confusing news stories, in our view."
Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the NRDC want Alar off the market. EPA wants to use the usual procedure in canceling a pesticide's registration, which takes 12 to 18 months.
NRDC wants an emergency removal.
"We don't do that unless exposure to a chemical is truly an emergency," said Rick Tinsworth, director of the special review and re-registration division in EPA's office of pesticides program.
The risk of contracting cancer solely from consuming apples or apple products treated with Alar over a lifetime are about 11 in a million. (EPA had set the figure at 45 per million using residue levels in 1985-1986. All those involved now agree that the risk is about one-fourth what it was then because fewer growers are using Alar.)
But 11 in a million is too high. EPA's acceptable risk potential is one in a million.
"But from the standpoint of the risk over a 70-year lifespan, we don't think waiting one more year presents a hazard," Tinsworth said.
The American Cancer Society's Heath noted that risk assessments are made using maximum risk conditions such as a lifetime of eating only apples with high Alar residues. "The actual risk is more difficult to tell," he said.
Striving for a balanced diet of lots of different foods is probably the best advice, he said.