LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Schools across the country are banning apples from lunchrooms even as one health expert mocks educators' fears of the farm chemical Alar as a ''toxic bogeyman.''

On Tuesday, school systems in Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and in Virginia joined districts in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Cincinnati, Atlanta and elsewhere in suspending sales of apples, applesauce and apple juice. The bans follow a report that children faced increased cancer risks from the chemical that's used to make some apples crisper and brighter.

Seeking to slow the spread of apple bans and soothe consumer alarm, California's top health officer said educators were acting hastily.

Kenneth Kizer, director of the state Department of Health Services, pulled out a shiny red apple and took a bite as he explained that current research on Alar, a trade name for the compound daminozide, shouldn't prompt anybody to quit eating the fruit.

''In a nutshell, I and the Department of Health Services think this was reactionary and premature and indeed our fear is they have really created a toxic bogeyman,'' Kizer said.

The bans were prompted by a report last month from the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, which estimated that the average preschooler's cancer risk was about one case for every 4,000 preschoolers exposed to UDMH, a breakdown product of Alar. It found the risk greatest for children because of the large amounts of apple products they consume.

Farm groups maintain little threat from the chemical exists, and the manufacturer, Uniroyal Chemical Co. of Middlebury, Conn., estimates it is used on only 5 percent of the nation's apple crop. The federal Environmental Protection Agency plans to ban the use of Alar on food crops in 18 months, pending further study.

Public lobbying against Alar by actress Meryl Streep and a broadcast on the CBS-TV program ''60 Minutes'' have fueled the growing concern.

Kizer said the risk of getting cancer from agricultural chemicals is dwarfed by the cancer threat posed by a bad diet overloaded with sugar and fat.

''This should not change what parents are putting in their kids' lunch or what schools are serving the kids,'' Kizer said of the controversy. ''When we send a message to our kids that apples aren't safe, what are they going to eat? They're going to eat Twinkies and Zingers.''

Vicky Scharlau, a spokeswoman for the Washington (state) Apple Commission, which represents the nation's largest apple crop, said it was frustrating that school districts were choosing to disregard EPA assurances that apples are safe.

''They are taking the issue into their own hands and playing judge and jury,'' she said. ''They are instilling fear in children whose favorite products are apples and apple products.''

Chicago officials said the ban was temporary, pending suppliers' assurances that the products were free of Alar.

In Virginia, bans were announced by school officials in Fairfax County outside Washington, D.C, and in Richmond.

The federal government's school lunch program will continue providing apples, applesauce and apple slices to students, said Gene Vincent, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

''Our apples are certified Alar-free,'' Vincent said.

A cyanide scare involving Chilean fruit may divert consumer attention away from apples, but won't solve the industry's problems, said Derl Derr, president of the International Apple Institute in McLean, Va.

Washington state provides about two-thirds of the nation's supermarket apples this time of year, and the state's 5,000 growers produce more than $310 million worth of apples per year.

Ron Myers, a Wenatchee, Wash., apple grower and member of the Washington Apple Commission, said the grower-financed commission planned to decide at its annual meeting today whether to spend part of a $1.6 million emergency fund on advertising to reassure consumers that apples are safe.

Tree Top Inc., the world's largest apple juice processor, also plans an advertising campaign in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and in USA Today this week, said spokesman John McAlister.

Daminozide is used most commonly on apples but also on other fruit and on flowers. It prevents apples from dropping or being blown from trees before they ripen, brings out the color in some varieties and has other benefits.

Varieties most commonly treated are MacIntosh, red delicious, golden delicious, and Jonathan. Granny Smith, Pippin and other green apples generally aren't treated.