Environmental Working Group (EWG)

If you’ve picked up a newspaper during the last twenty years, odds are you’ve come across a breathlessly written news report warning against some item that is secretly poisoning you. “Sunscreen is causing cancer” the headlines might scream. “Why your baby’s bottle is poison,” says the local newscaster. “Non-organic vegetables are covered in toxins,” another report might ominously warn. If you actually read the story that accompanies these attention-grabbing headlines, you’ll notice that many of them come from the same source: the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and related organizations like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

There’s really only one thing you need to know about the Environmental Working Group when it comes to its studies of toxins: 79 percent of members of the Society of Toxicology (scientists who know a little something about toxins) who rated the group say that the Environmental Working Group overstates the health risk of chemicals.

That’s because the EWG has a history of passing shady “science” off as solid facts. Its main talent isn’t research, it’s duping reporters into credulously transcribing their “findings.” A nonprofit organization that has learned how to turn public panic into a stream of hefty donations, the Environmental Working Group has no problem ginning  up outrage that causes families needless worry and does incalculable damage to honest industries. Hyperbole, it seems, is big business – last year the EWG raised more than $6 million.

The EWG issues press releases and studies on a wide range of topics, from sunscreen to cosmetics to drinking water to plastics to vaccines. It has become a go-to resource for the mainstream media, earning mentions in virtually every major newspaper in the United States. Even some conservative outlets, like the National Review, uncritically cite the EWG’s online farm subsidy database that tracks government payments to “Fortune 500 companies.”

In reality, the Environmental Working Group is a cauldron where many of the worst pseudoscience smear campaigns are cooked up. It preys on the public’s distrust of polysyllabic scientific jargon — and reporters’ ignorance of the same — to make it sound as if everyday items with complicated names are, in fact, deadly dangerous.

The EWG’s game plan is simple. It releases “scientific” analyses designed to make the public (especially parents) worry about extremely tiny amounts of “toxins” in everyday items. It throws around scary phrases like “cancer risk” and “nervous system toxicity” that is catnip for environmental reporters, many of whom uncritically pass along the EWG reports without scrutiny or fact-checking. If the EWG had its way, America would turn its back on the scientific advances that our crops more productive, prevent cancer, and keep our food fresh and safe.

What readers are rarely told is that these studies are often based on extremely thin evidence and have a tendency to jump to conclusions unsupported by the science. Before taking anything this ridiculous group has to say seriously, it’s important to understand EWG’s pattern of peddling falsehoods. Here’s a sampling of some of the EWG’s greatest misses from the last 20 years:

Sunscreen Scare

In July 2010, the Environmental Working Group released a sunscreen guide; in it, EWG argued that certain chemicals that are commonly used within sunscreen solutions are dangerous carcinogens and should be avoided. Its bad guy du jour was retinyl palmitate. As Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society pointed out in the Montreal Gazette, “better known as vitamin A, retinol plays an important role in maintaining normal skin function. When added to creams or lotions, it can reduce the appearance of fine lines, giving the skin a more youthful appearance.” Since it’s not stable, it is turned into retinyl palmitate, which enhances collagen formation and increases cell division.The EWG based its report on laboratory experiments showing that mice exposed to ultraviolet light while having retinyl palmitate applied to their skin developed tumors more quickly than mice that didn’t. The only problem, as Dr. Schwarcz points out, is that the study has not been peer reviewed, no sunscreen lotion consists solely (or even primarily) of retinyl palmitate, and another study from 2009 on hamsters concluded the exact opposite of what the new study shows. (Make that “the only three problems.”) Indeed, the New York-based Skin Cancer Foundation disputed the report’s findings and, according to the Palm Beach Post, is worried that “consumers confused about the report might stop using sunscreens.” This is a legitimate concern, since over-exposure to sunlight is a well-known cause of skin cancer.The Skin Cancer Foundation and Dr. Schwarcz weren’t the only ones to express concern. The Orange County Register reported that “Dr. Matt Goodman, a dermatologist in the melanoma program at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, says the Environmental Working Group’s claims on retinyl palmitate are suspect because they rely on research done on mice. … ‘This leads me to conclude that risk is extremely low, if nonexistent.’”

Decrying Safety of Cosmetics

Lead in Lipstick

An offshoot of the Environmental Working Group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, released a report in 2007 decrying dangerous levels of lead in lipstick. Thirty-three red lipsticks were tested, and, using the standard for lead in candy of .01 parts per million, they concluded that more than half had “dangerous” amounts of lead. The problem with the study is that it is total nonsense.The first problem comes from comparing lipstick, which is applied topically, to candy, which is ingested in full. Common sense dictates that there is clearly a difference between putting on some lipstick and eating the whole tube. Furthermore, testing conducted by the FDA and published in the July/August 2009 issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Cosmetic Science found that “lead levels found are within the range that would be expected from lipsticks formulated with permitted color additives and other ingredients that had been prepared under good manufacturing practice conditions.” The FDA expanded on its initial findings in 2011, stating that it confirms “that the amount of lead found in lipstick is very low and does not pose safety concerns.”The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is just as questionable in its use of data as the parent organization that is driving it. “These things sound terribly scary, but there’s a massive disconnect between how toxicologists evaluate risks and how activist groups evaluate risk,” Trevor Butterworth of George Mason University’s Center for Health and Risk Communication told the New York Times. Indeed, the Society of Toxicologists survey found that only 6 percent of toxicologists believe that “any” exposure to a harmful chemical like lead is unacceptable. They feel that the media (and the public) does not understand that “the dose makes the poison.”

This point is driven home by the fact that the CSC provides no evidence showing that the trace amounts of lead in lipstick have caused any sort of problem. That comports with scientist’s understanding of the situation; in the aforementioned survey of toxicologists, only 26 percent think that cosmetics “pose a significant health risk.” The disconnect between the toxicologists and the EWG’s Campaign for Safe Cosmetics isn’t hard to understand. Real scientists try to determine whether or not a substance is harmful; the Environmental Working Group and its offshoots simply point to a substance’s existence, claim the sky is falling, and put out a press release.

Phthalates in Pregnancy

Most expecting mothers constantly question whether various things they do or consume during their pregnancy will have a negative effect on their newborns. EWG has pounced on that concern and has targeted pregnant women specifically in its anti-cosmetic campaign. Specifically, EWG claims that the everyday products used by women will cause low birth weight, preterm birth, cancers, and birth defects. EWG specifically targets phthalates, plasticizers used in many products, as particularly harmful to pregnant women. Yet an expert panel convened  by the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, “concluded that reproductive risks from exposure to phthalate esters were minimal to negligible in most cases.” The FDA has reviewed the data regarding the presence of pthalates in women of child-bearing age and found that there is no data showing any health risk.

Paraben Scare

EWG has also launched a fear mongering campaign against parabens- the most widely used preservatives in cosmetics. According to EWG, these “dangerous” chemicals should be eliminated from use in personal care products because of increased risk of cancer  (though eliminating parabens’ and their anti-microbial function would lead to drastically shorter shelf lives). EWG even produced a ridiculous 2008 “study” that suggested American teenage girls are “contaminated” with the chemical and concluded that “the federal government must set comprehensive safety standards for cosmetics and other personal care products.” Of course, EWG once again employed questionable scientific methodology to reach its fear-inducing results. Its findings are based on blood and urine samples from just 20 teenage girls and EWG merely reports on the presence of specific chemicals in those samples. All 20 girls tested positive for parabens, but the “experts” at EWG failed to prove that parabens actually cause any harm or that they were present in the girls as a result of cosmetic use (parabens can also be found in processed foods and pharmaceuticals). The FDA once again fails to agree with the “scientists” at EWG. After reviewing the literature and research on parabens, it concluded that “there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.”

Questioning Water Quality

At the end of 2009, the Environmental Working Group released a report on the quality of water available out of the tap in various localities across the country. Its results were both explosive – generating many unquestioning headlines from newspapers worried about their local water supplies – and mostly bunk. Between 2004 and 2008, the EWG found that the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority in Florida “reported 45 impurities in the water,” according to the Pensacola News Journal. The ECUA then commissioned the University of West Florida to examine the water. The results? “The UWF study showed that the ECUA did not exceed a single water quality standard set forth by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. ‘According to the accepted drinking water quality regulations, the water provided by ECUA offers minimal risk and is safe for human consumption according to federal and State of Florida standards,’” the study said. Other responses called the study’s methodology into question. “The fault is with the Environmental Working Group,” David Wright of the Riverside Public Utilities told the Press-Enterprise. “They lied about groundwater test data and represented that as tap water data.” The EWG had tested water that had yet to be treated and passed it off as the stuff that comes out of your tap.

Encouraging Anti-Vaccine Hysteria

One of the worst things that the Environmental Working Group has done is contribute to the myth that vaccines are leading to a spike in autism in America’s children. In 2004, the EWG published the paper “Overloaded? New Science, new insights about mercury and autism in children.” The paper reported that there are “serious concerns about the studies that have allegedly proven the safety of mercury in vaccines” and stoked fears that childhood vaccines like those for Measles, Mumps and Rubella are responsible for increased incidences of autism.The EWG was playing a dangerous game here. By trying to put a scare into parents about the health of their children in order to score some free media coverage, it contributed to a growing subculture in which vaccines are shunned and kids are getting sick. In 2010, for example, an unvaccinated San Diego boy contracted measles during a trip to Europe, exposing 839 people to the disease upon return to the U.S.The EWG is literally putting children at risk of devastating childhood illnesses by propagating this phony science. And that’s what the vaccine-autism scare is: phony. It was first cooked up by a charlatan who fudged his data and is no longer allowed to practice medicine in his home country, and the theory has been rejected not just by autism activists but by the federal court system. Meanwhile, the EWG’s website continues to host articles alleging a link between vaccines and autism.

Discouraging Seafood Consumption 

Vaccines aren’t the only healthy products that the Environmental Working Group has tried to scare people away from utilizing; it has also claimed that trace amounts of mercury in fish represent such a health risk that people should avoid eating seafood altogether. Instead of trying to balance concerns over mercury in fish with the health and nutritional benefits of eating seafood, the EWG put out scary press releases designed to oversimplify the issue and ensure a hyped-up response.As a result, Americans are now depriving themselves of the health benefits of fish. An article in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that, when it comes to scaring non-pregnant women away from eating fish because of mercury, “the net public health impact is negative. Although high compliance with recommended fish consumption patterns can improve public health, unintended shifts in consumption can lead to public health losses.” They also found that pregnant women who ignore fish altogether are also worse off with regard to heart disease, stroke, and prenatal cognitive development. Tuna is called brain food for a reason, after all.Of course, an even-handed look at the benefits and risks of eating fish is unlikely to convince reporters to cover the topic. Over-the-top warnings about the dire threat unborn children face from mercury? That’ll be sure to grab some eyeballs, keep the EWG in the public spotlight, and keep the donations flowing in.

BPA Witch Hunt

Perhaps one of EWG’s biggest targets is bisphenol-A–a chemical used in all types of everyday products from canned food to plastics. EWG was one of the first and loudest opponents of the chemical’s use, arguing that it is an “endocrine disrupter” and can cause hormonal changes in humans. The FDA (along with other government bodies) has repeatedly stated that BPA is safe in low levels and has denied requests by EWG and other environmental activists to ban the chemical. The medical and executive director at the American Council on Science and Health agrees, stating that “The scientifically baseless, politically motivated ban on its use in thermal cash-register receipts is inane and a waste of resources, intellectual and financial, and will serve to benefit only those hypocritical officials trying to exploit the public’s fear of chemicals.”Yet even though the FDA says that BPA is safe to consume in food, EWG put out a report in 2010 to scare Americans into thinking that the low levels of BPA they come into contact with on store receipts are cause for panic. EWG’s scaremongering even convinced several localities to either ban or consider banning BPA in receipts altogether.

Organic Agenda

The EWG has long argued in favor of organic agriculture, claiming that pesticides are a danger to our health and a horrible threat to humanity. What its not telling us, of course, is that most of the pesticides we find on fresh produce are natural, and manufactured by plants themselves. In a 1995 interview with Vegetarian Times magazine, the award-winning Berkeley biologist Bruce Ames insisted that “99.99% of the pesticides we eat are naturally present in plants to ward off insects and other predators… Reducing our exposure to the 0.01% of ingested pesticides that are synthetic is not likely to reduce cancer rates.”And even that small portion of agricultural pesticides that are synthetic have resulted in tremendous gains for humanity, despite EWG’s unfounded assertions to the contrary. Man-made agricultural chemicals have been in use for over 50 years in the United States, and they are among the most rigorously tested and heavily regulated products in the economy. They have undeniably made fresh fruits and vegetables cheaper and more readily available for Americans, especially for the economically disadvantaged. The U.S. Public Health Service says that “such nutritional advances are largely responsible” for much of the 30 years of increased life expectancy that we’ve all gained in the last 100 years. Organics aren’t necessarily any healthier; only one in ten toxicologists thinks that “organic or ‘natural’ products are inherently safer.”

Anti-GMO Activism

In addition to pushing organics, the Environmental Working Group is leading the ant-Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) bandwagon. By trying to convince the general public that GMOs are substantively different than non-GMOs and may be “unsafe,” EWG is threatening the ability of farmers to grow enough food to sustain global populations. EWG claims that the “safety of genetically engineered foods have not been proved.”  Yet the  National Academies, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Royal Society and the European Commission all agree that the evidence suggests GMOs are not dangerous. The Environmental Working Group is more extreme on this issue than even the food cops at the Center for Science in the Public Interest–the same group that accuses M&Ms of harming kids with artificial colors.  And even though GMOs have the potential to feed the world by using fewer pesticides (and we know EWG is anti-pesticide, pro-organic), EWG still calls for their stigmatization and labeling.

Superbug Scare

The Environmental Working Group also has a nasty habit of overstating other risks associated with farming and livestock rearing. In early 2013, the Environmental Working Group released an analysis of the FDA’s Retail Meat Annual Report of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System that declared “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotics are invading American supermarkets. Even The New York Times fell for EWG’s hype about “new findings” in the report. Yet the FDA (the same organization that actually produced the report) put out a statement condemning EWG’s report as “misleading,” stating that the group “oversimplifies the data and provides misleading conclusions.”