Jane Houlihan
Key Player

Jane Houlihan is the senior VP for research at the Environmental Working Group. She has a masters and bachelors degree in civil engineering from Georgia Tech.

The Vice President for Research at the Environmental Working Group has a history of writing papers intended to scare the public and flacking for dubious studies on the supposed dangers of cosmetics and sunscreen. She has done her best to induce angst, authoring papers aimed at scaring mothers about the health of their infants (“Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns”), their children (“Children Overexposed to Rocket Fuel Chemical”), and even their pets (“Polluted Pets: High Levels of Toxic Industrial Chemicals Contaminate Cats and Dogs”).

Houlihan understands the importance of whipping up consumer fears; she’s been cashing in on these worries by collecting a six figure salary from the EWG for years now, appearing on radio and television and even in front of Congress to promote EWG’s myths about the chemicals in our food, makeup, and sunscreen.

She’s a better PR person than scientist, however. Take her latest crusade against sunscreen into account. Touting a study that purported to show sunscreens aren’t all they are cracked up to be – and that they might even promote cancer – Houlihan said “It has been a Wild West on the market … parents need to be careful what they’re using.” The study stoked fears about retinyl palmitate (a derivative of vitamin A) and implied that sunscreen companies are lying about the level of protection their products provide.

Very few actual scientists agree with Houlihan and the Environmental Working Group’s talking points, however. In the Orange County Register, Dr. Matt Goodman — a dermatologist in the melanoma program at St. Joseph Hospital — said that “the Environmental Working Group’s claims on retinyl palmitate are suspect because they rely on research done on mice, which are more susceptible to skin cancer than humans.” This, he said, “leads me to conclude that the risk is extremely low, if nonexistent.”

The New York-based Skin Cancer Foundation was equally flummoxed by Houlihan. They told the Palm Beach Postthat “its scientists say there isn’t enough evidence to back the claims about the negative effects of either vitamin A or oxybenzone. … The group is worried that consumers confused about the report might stop using sunscreens.”

Dr. Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, was equally skeptical of Houlihan’s outfit’s work. “Interestingly, there are also studies showing a protective effect for retinoic acid against skin cancer,” he wrote in the Montreal Gazette. “The fact is that you can take practically any chemical and construct a scary scenario by referring to the literature selectively.” Schwarcz then pointed to three organic items that the EWG promoted as healthy – oakmoss, lavender, and zinc oxide – as substances that are beneficial but have also been shown to cause cancer under certain laboratory conditions.

Sunscreen isn’t the only product Houlihan and her coworkers at the EWG have attacked. They also went after lipstick for having trace amounts of lead. “The average woman uses a dozen products containing 167 different ingredients every day,” she told Washingtonian. “You practically need to be a chemist.”

Of course, most chemists would tell you that worrying about trace amounts of lead in lipstick is a fool’s errand. The FDA certainly would: Responding to the fears that the EWG whipped up, they conducted a study that was published in the peer-reviewed Journal for Cosmetic Science that concluded the lead levels were “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” and of no real danger to people.

Think of it this way. If you ate a 1 oz tube of lipstick every day, with 1 ppm of lead, that would be 28 micrograms of lead. Also, if you drink 2 liters of water, with 14 parts per billion of lead (below the EPA action level of 15 ppb), that is also 28 micrograms. In other words, there’s very little to worry about, but Houlihan and the Environmental Working Group make their money by causing you worries. There’s a reason that 79 percent of toxicologists surveyed by the Society of Toxicologists say that the EWG overstates the health risk of chemicals; only six percent believe that “any exposure” to a harmful chemical is unacceptable.

But the EWG knows what it’s doing. That same survey found that a shocking 97 percent of toxicologists feel that the media doesn’t distinguish good studies from bad studies like those peddled by Houlihan. She knows that the media just needs a headline, something to grab eyeballs and sell newspapers. If that comes at the expense of good science – or even puts people at risk by convincing them to forego sunscreen altogether – well, so be it.