Kenneth A. Cook
Key Player

Co-founder & president, Environmental Working Group; board member of The Organic Center; board member, Environmental Media Services; former vice pres., Ctr. for Resource Economics; former press dir., World Wildlife Fund

Ken Cook brought a history of liberal political activism with him when he started the Environmental Working Group (EWG). A graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, he has authored dozens of articles, opinion pieces and reports promoting the lefty-environmental party line. Cook got his start in the environmental movement in the late 1970s, serving as chief lobbyist (and later head of media relations) at the World Wildlife Fund.

He also worked as a campaign aide for Michael Dukakis’s disastrous 1988 presidential run, helping to write the “What Not To Do” textbook for political campaigns. After Dukakis crashed and burned, Cook found a home in the offices of Island Press, a left-of-center environmental book publisher instituted by Andrew Mellon heiress Catherine Conover. Island Press also runs the Center for Resource Economics, where Cook held the title of Vice President for Policy and “incubated” the Environmental Working Group. Cook reorganized EWG in 1993 and placed it under the tax umbrella of the Tides Foundation.

The Environmental Working Group is on its own now, and Ken Cook has become an expert at scaremongering and whipping up unjustified fears over chemicals and pesticides. He capitalizes on the public’s fear of big words and the media’s insatiable desire for sensationalistic headlines to plant stories about myriad phony threats in the nation’s newspapers. He then uses that publicity to raise more funds – in 2008, Cook’s group had revenues of $6.2 million, $1.2 million of which was distributed to Cook and other board members as salary.

Scaring the public has been especially profitable for Cook, who has seen his salary more than double from $109,167 in 2000 to $219,401 by 2008, the last year for which we have numbers.

Hyperbole like the sort Cook excels in might be big business, but it’s also bad science. Consider the reaction that the Food and Drug Administration had to the EWG’s sensationalistic study about lead in lipsticks; the FDA had a study published in the July/August 2009 issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Cosmetic Science which reported 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.”

Cook’s group has also been rapped on the knuckles for fomenting fear over sunscreen. The EWG released a guide to sunscreens questioning their efficacy; that lead the New York-based Skin Cancer Foundation to dispute the report’s findings and, according to the Palm Beach Post, worry that “consumers confused about the report might stop using sunscreens.”

Then there’s the reaction to a recent report by Cook’s EWG on pesticides in food. The Alliance for Food and Farming convened an expert panel with scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency, UC-Davis, the University of Michigan, the University of Kansas, and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School who wrote that the EWG’s report “is misleading to consumers in that it is based only upon exposure data while remaining silent about available information on the assessment of the toxicity of pesticides.”

Perhaps most shameful is Cook’s group’s dalliance with the conspiracy theorists who have argued that vaccines have led to a spike in autism. The vaccine-autism scare is totally bogus. 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. There’s a good chance that Cook’s fearmongering has lead to actual damage being done to American youths; there have been outbreaks of measles and other diseases as a result of the vaccine/autism scam. One can only how much damage his group’s campaign against sunscreen has done – how many will forego UV-blockers because the EWG has confused them on the issues?

Cook understands the need to whip up fraudulent scares about things like pesticides, lipstick, and water supplies: He can only accomplish his (and his funders’) goals by inciting intense reactions. A USA Today story in March, 2010, pointed out that “Americans’ worries about environmental issues have hit a 20-year-low, largely because of economic concerns, according to a Gallup Poll released Tuesday. … The poll numbers [were] disappointing, but they ‘don’t capture what motivates environmental legislation,’ which is ‘intensity,’ says Ken Cook.”

In other words, Cook uses his position to scare people silly with projects like the EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and then reaps the rewards in the form of philanthropic grants and donations from regular citizens. He even sits on the board of organizations like The Organic Center, an organic farm-funded nonprofit that has the unintended effect of scaring people away from eating non-organic vegetables by hyping non-existent threats from pesticides.

Cook also ignores the tangible benefits pesticides have provided. As Forrest Laws wrote in the Penton Insight, “Ken Cook and other critics apparently have no inkling of why farm programs have made it possible for Americans to avoid the ‘feast-or-famine’ cycles that have bedeviled the world throughout history.”