Alar and Day Care

On February 26, 1989, the CBS news show 60 Minutes ran a segment on Alar, a chemical sprayed on fruit to enhance its growth. Extremely high doses of the chemical caused cancer in animals. The hand wringing began in earnest. Grocery stores rejected apples treated with Alar and many farmers suffered economically.

Congress held anxious hearings. Actress Meryl Streep marshaled her considerable persuasive skills and furrowed her brow in concern for America’s most helpless citizens, its children, as she testified before Congress. It was a situation ripe for political exploitation by the political Left. On one side there are greedy chemical companies. On the other side are young vulnerable children innocently eating tainted apples. Streep even founded a group call “Mothers and Others” to carry on her crusade against pesticides threatening children.

It turns out that one would have to eat bushels of apples daily over a lifetime to incur a significant risk of cancer. It is even more ironic that untreated apples are more susceptible to naturally forming toxins. Not treating apples properly can actually prove to be more of a health threat.

This last week the National Institute of Health and Human Development released a longitudinal study tracking 1,300 children from a variety of locations around the country. It turns out that toddlers committed to day care have a significantly greater likelihood by kindergarten of being aggressive and disobedient. As one of the investigators Jay Belsky, explained, “There is a constant dose-response relationship between time in care and problem behavior, especially those involving aggression and behavior.” This finding held for children from both affluent and poor homes and for children from rural and urban areas.

What is most amazing about the study is that people seem so surprised at the conclusions. Until recently, it would have been the conventional wisdom that most parents care more for and are better for their children than any third party. The study is credible because it is so consistent with common experience. Anyone who spends significant time with young children can generally distinguish the day care children from children cared for by a stay-at-home parent.

In the wake of this new study, where is Meryl Streep now? Where is the concern for the welfare of children? Where are the Congressional hearings? Where are the foundations dedicated to protecting children from third-party day care?

Of course, the difference here is that calling into question the efficacy of day care conflicts with the effort by the women’s movement to enlarge the range of choices for women. If day care somehow harms children, parents who place their children in day care appear to be placing personal enrichment ahead of the welfare of their children. Studies of the kind just released are inconvenient. Unfortunately some people are so thoroughly afflicted with the women’s movement ideology that the therapy of evidence is insufficient.

The chance of a child becoming ill from Alar is far far smaller than the odds of experiencing negative behavior modification from day care. However, day care advocates warn us not to jump to hasty conclusions based on this new study. Don’t they sound an awful lot like defensive chemical companies?

Does this new study indicate that children who spend time in day care are condemned to be emotionally crippled psychopaths? Of course not. However, if the Left is so concerned about children, why are they not clamoring for public policies to not only broaden possibilities for day care, but also to enable the choice of having one parent stay at home?

All other things being equal, it is better to have fewer chemicals on fruit. However, the benefits of a safe and ample food supply must be weighed against the dangers. By the same token, day care is sometimes the only option for single parents. Quality day care needs to be available. However, make no mistake. Whatever benefits there are to day care for parents, day care is generally a second best option for children. You cannot care for children and be unconcerned about the long-term consequences of having so many youngsters consigned to third-party day care.

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