Sixty Minutes Offers Toxic Television
Week of:
July 27, 1997

F.R. Duplantier

by:

F.R. Duplantier

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Our first 50 years . . .
Our First Fifty Years
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In 1989 Sixty Minutes precipitated a public panic over "poisoned" apples. It set off a second scare in 1990 by demonizing dental fillings!

Adam Lieberman of the American Council on Science and Health recalls that Alar, the ripening agent for apples, "went through two years of FDA carcinogenicity tests and was approved as safe by the FDA in 1968." A 1973 study purporting to show that an Alar byproduct produced tumors in mice was based on absurdly large doses. "Further tests conducted by the National Cancer Institute in 1978 and the EPA in 1986 also failed to indicate that Alar was a carcinogen," says Lieberman. Nevertheless, following yet another study marred by excessive dosages, the EPA ordered the eventual discontinuation of Alar.

"This gradual phaseout didn't satisfy the Natural Resources Defense Council, however," notes Lieberman in a special report called Facts Versus Fears. The NRDC launched a major public relations offensive early in 1989 with the help of the television program 60 Minutes, which offered an uncritical showcase for the sensational charges in the group's anti-Alar propaganda report. "In the days following the 60 Minutes broadcast, the claims in the NRDC report were repeated by virtually every major print and broadcast outlet," Lieberman recalls. "Public reaction verged on the hysterical."

The voices of reason were drowned out by the din of disinformation. "When the dust had cleared, apple growers had lost an estimated $250 million," Lieberman reports. "Apple processors had lost another $125 million. Some growers who had owned their farms for generations lost them to foreclosure."

The amalgam filling scare, by contrast, was a boon to business. It began in 1979, when "researchers discovered that small amounts of mercury could be released into the body from chewing. Such exposure lasts for only a few seconds, however -- and most of the mercury is exhaled," says Lieberman. "Nevertheless, a small number of dentists began making claims that patients had been 'poisoned' by their mercury fillings and suggesting that the fillings' removal could cure ailments ranging from anxiety and acne to multiple sclerosis, premenstrual syndrome, and cancer."

Subsequent studies on animals lent support to this dental quackery by positing "possible ill effects from mercury amalgam, as well as a relationship between fillings and higher blood levels of mercury. These studies were more than countered, however, by numerous epidemiological studies indicating no evidence of health problems," says Lieberman. "This did not deter some dentists from urging their patients to have their fillings removed -- at a cost of $65 to $500 per filling, and often with disastrous results." The free publicity provided by a 60 Minutes report called "Poisons in Your Mouth?" was priceless; it set off a stampede of cavity-conscious consumers clamoring to have their teeth detoxified.

Hucksters, hoaxes, and hysteria -- that's what it all boiled down to. Adam Lieberman reports that the U.S. Public Health Service concluded in 1993 "that any mercury released from amalgams does not con-tribute to disease, immune-system disorders, or birth defects; and that allergies from such fillings are extremely rare."

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