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Environmental Working Group Undermines Public Health, Good Government

December 7, 2016

The Environmental Working Group is an activist organization that stokes unwarranted fears of modern agriculture, chemicals, and some medical technology.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an activist organization, specializes in research, litigation, and lobbying about chemicals, agricultural subsidies, public lands, and corporate accountability.

Its website states EWG’s mission is “to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment.”

Although EWG President Ken Cook claims he cofounded the organization in 1993 with Richard Wiles, it actually existed as a subsidiary or partner of the ultra-left Center for Resource Economics/Island Press, and subsequently the Tides Foundation, as early as 1989. It became incorporated as a fully separate entity in 1999.

EWG is a leader in stoking unwarranted fears of modern agriculture and some medical technology.

Show Me the Money

EWG had a good start financially, with its first 17 grants, which were provided by a variety of left-leaning foundations, topping $5 million.

EWG has continued to thrive since then. In 2013, EWG had $3.57 million in assets and an income of $7.43 million. EWG’s 2013 expenditures included $538,701 spent on lobbying, $1.15 million spent on fundraising, and $4.5 million on salaries, including President Ken Cook’s $251,595 compensation package. EWG received 43 grants from 37 foundations in 2013, totaling $5.57 million. These grants included $2 million from the Foundation for the Carolinas; $1.05 million  from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; $175,000 from the Walton Family Foundation; and $35,000 from the Tides Foundation.

In addition, EWG received two large multiyear pass-through grants in 2013 from the ClimateWorks Foundation for its Climate and Land Use Alliance project and its Disrupting the Global Commodity Business program. The two grants combined totaled $1,350,000 for EWG to support federal government initiatives to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and nitrogen pollution associated with agriculture in the United States through research, policy advocacy, education, and outreach.

EWG is a prime example of the revolving door between the federal government and environmental lobbying groups. Twenty-three EWG lobbyists served in congressional offices or as professional staff on congressional committees. In 2013, EWG also had seven employees on two Environmental Protection Agency committees. On the regulatory front, EWG was mentioned in 384 regulatory agency dockets and submitted comments to 26 dockets in 2013.

Use of Flawed Studies

The Capital Research Center reports EWG specializes in fomenting health scares about food, pesticides, and other products by producing non-peer-reviewed studies, which uniformly conclude exposure to many everyday items—such as baby food, cosmetics, breast milk, tap water, fruits and vegetables—pose risks to human health, especially for children.

Unfounded Sunscreen Scare

In July 2010, EWG released a “sunscreen guide” asserting retinyl palmitate, commonly found in sunscreen products, is a dangerous carcinogen.

In fact, retinyl palmitate is a common vitamin supplement used to treat vitamin A deficiency. Commenting on the study, Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, told the Montreal Gazette EWG based its report on flawed, non-peer-reviewed laboratory experiments. Schwarcz says no sunscreen lotion contains enough retinyl palmitate to cause any known health problem.

A peer-reviewed study published in 2010 also contradicts EWG’s study. “Safety of Retinyl Palmitate in Sunscreens: A Critical Analysis” was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. It concludes, “There is no convincing evidence to support the notion that [retinyl palmitate] in sunscreens is carcinogenic.”

The Palm Beach Post reports the Skin Cancer Foundation was worried “consumers confused about the report might stop using sunscreens,” which would be harmful because overexposure to sunlight is a well-known cause of skin cancer.

Stoking Fear of Tap Water

In 2009, EWG released a report on the quality of tap water in various localities across the country. The alarming claims contained in the study generated much attention from media outlets, which repeated EWG’s false findings.

For instance, the Pensacola News Journal reported EWG’s finding the Emerald Coast Utilities (ECUA) Authority in Florida “reported 45 impurities in the water” between 2004 and 2008. Surprised by EWG’s claims, ECUA commissioned the University of West Florida (UWF) to examine its water quality record. Contrary to EWG’s claims, the UWF study found ECUA did not violate a single federal Environmental Protection Agency water quality standard.

“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.

David Wright of Riverside Public Utilities told the Press-Enterprise, “The fault is with the Environmental Working Group. They lied about groundwater test data and represented that as tap water data.”

The reason EWG’s results differed substantially from others’ is because it tested water that had yet to be treated, improperly and deceptively passing it off as tap water.

Vaccine-Autism Claims

Since the release of its first paper on the topic in 2004, Environmental Working Group has contributed to the myth vaccines are leading to a spike in autism in U.S. children. In 2004, EWG released “Overloaded? New Science, New Insights About Mercury and Autism in Children.”

The document claimed there are “serious concerns about the studies that have allegedly proven the safety of mercury in vaccines” and stoked fears childhood vaccines such as those used for measles, mumps, and rubella are responsible for increased incidences of autism.

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence childhood vaccinations are not causally linked to autism, EWG continues to allege such a link exists and thus contributes to the marked decline in vaccination rates in the United States.

Ron Arnold (arnold.ron@gmail.com) is a free-enterprise activist, author, and commentator.

Author
Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute.
arnold.ron@gmail.com @ron_arnold