Environmental Working Group: A Scare A Day

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Suppose your gracious new neighbor took you aside one day and quietly warned that serving non-organic fruits and vegetables to your family was endangering your kids' health. Suppose she offered a professional-looking "index of danger" showing your supermarket's peaches, apples, spinach, celery, and potatoes were all too dangerous to eat. You'd probably be devastated.

Then suppose you learned from another friend that the neighbor had made it all up. With no training in chemistry or medicine, she'd made a bid for local prestige by concocting her own "chemical danger index" and frightening her neighbors half to death. Would you feel betrayed?

Meet the Environmental Working Group, your friendly, concerned "neighbor" from Washington, D.C. The EWG is a multi-million-dollar "public interest watchdog" dedicated to making you afraid of nearly everything in your modern world: fruits, vegetables, baby food, drinking water, toys, swimming pool chlorine, utility poles, cotton clothes, etc. The EWG says that eating one non-organic apple or peach can cause "dizziness, nausea, or blurred vision" in a child, but offers no evidence. The EWG makes up its own "danger indexes" despite the fact that it has no scientists on its staff.

EWG does have a brilliant scheme guaranteed to keep you in fear for as long as you're willing to stay there. The EWG says it recently tested nine people and found traces in their bodies of seventy-six different chemicals "linked to cancer," seventy-nine chemicals "associated with birth defects," eighty-six that disrupt the hormone system, and ninety-four that impact the brain and nervous systems. And all those chemicals can, indeed, be found in our environment. What the EWG doesn't tell you is that 1) the chemicals are found only in tiny amounts and 2) there's no link between the trace chemicals and our health.

The brilliance of the EWG strategy is that modern chemical testing can find a part per trillion. That's like one second in 31,000 years. Thus we'll always have "chemical contamination" to support EWG scaremongering.

Some examples:

They warn you about dioxin, despite the fact that U.S. dioxin output is about four pounds per year, nationwide. Most of it is natural, from forest fires.

They warn you that DDT, banned for thirty years, is still lurking in the soil and that industrially-produced PCBs are buried in the rivers. Last year, however, the Federal government released a major study of New York's Long Island, where women have a relatively high breast-cancer incidence. They examined blood and urine samples from 3,000 women (half with breast cancer, half without) along with samples of their yard dirt, carpet dust, and tap water. The study focused on the cancer risks of everybody's favorite chemical villains: DDT, another long-banned pesticide called dieldrin, and PCBs.

They found no link between any of the chemicals and breast cancer. What they found is that too many Long Island women smoke, and lots of them delay having children. Both raise breast cancer risks.

Where does the public-interest EWG get its money? Not from the public. They get it from the politically correct foundations of long-dead industrialists, whose affluent grandkids now feel guilty that Mr. Ford or Mr. Pew got rich producing things people wanted, like cars and gasoline.

If you still prefer the chemical conspiracy theory, remember that our kids' urgent health risks include smoking, lack of exercise, overeating, and not eating the five fruits and vegetables per day that will cut their total cancer risk in half. The major impact of the Environmental Working Group is to make us fear the ultra-healthful fruits and vegetables, and make us more inclined to drink sodas than tap water. How does that help?

Dennis Avery is director of the Center for Global Food Issues (www.cgfi.org), on whose site this article first appeared.


September 18, 2003

While I agree with Mr. Avery's assessment that EWG's scare tactics can push people away from healthy foods, the fact that organic and non-organic foods have measurable differences in their metabolism has been definitively established.

For instance, the University of Washington conducted an EPA-funded study in 2002 which found that children who consumed "conventional" diets had organophosphate metabolite levels six times higher than those of children who consumed "organic" diets. Are organophosphates a problem in children? Are the six-times-lower metabolite levels healthier than the baseline levels? I'll have to let Mr. Avery make that assessment.

Ironically, Dr. Ruth Kava, R.D., published an article, also posted on this website, indicating that driving children to sodas and tap water is fully acceptable, thereby encouraging EWG's tactics. Perhaps Mr. Avery would also like to comment on that article.

David L. McDonald, B.S.E.

January 15, 2004

Dear ACSH:

As a new mom, I'm very interested in learning what we know and don't know about the effects that environmental chemicals and toxins have on health, especially children's health. Although I haven't bought any of your books, I've been reading many of your articles and press releases on various issues. I have two concerns (and some related questions) about the claims you make in the writings on your website.

First, you explain that some of the lobbying groups out there scare us by suggesting that chemicals are dangerous to us, when the facts are that they have never been shown to cause damage in the low doses in which people would normally be exposed to them. Fine. That makes some sense to me.

But you then go on to claim that the chemicals therefore cause no harm. An example is your press release saying "Dry-Cleaning Chemical Poses No Health Threat to Consumers." Nowhere have you cited any evidence that perc (or the other chemicals you talk about) is safe in low doses, womb-to-tomb exposures, to kids, etc.

I'm no scientist, but I know that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Even if it wouldn't be as catchy or definitive, wouldn't it be more accurate to say "Claims of harm from ______ are unsupported by current evidence?"

Second, in the course of my recent research, I have looked at some the Environmental Working Group's materials. In critiquing them, you say a few things that just don't seem accurate. While I'm interested in hearing the other side and hope the other side will be more credible than the EWG, frankly I'm now doubting your claims. Perhaps you could explain.

In one instance, for example, you say, "The EWG says that eating one non-organic apple or peach can cause 'dizziness, nausea, or blurred vision' in a child but offers no evidence." So I went on the EWG website to look. EWG does say that peaches had nine pesticides on a single sample in their test (see http://www.foodnews.org/reportcard.php, and that forty-five pesticides were found on 96% of the peaches tested, and what effects those peaches have been found to have in research such as being an "animal carcinogen" (see http://www.foodnews.org/highpest.php?prod=PFR21G13&. I didn't see the quote you mentioned anywhere, but even if it is there, I wonder why you didn't address the seemingly straightforward statistics they did present.

Also, as to your claim that the EWG is trying to get people to stop eating fruits and veggies, the EWG's website (at pages cited above) clearly states that eating fruits and vegetables is very important but that a person should opt for organics or those that have, on average, fewer pesticides. That's their fundamental thesis, yet you don't take it on.

I also read the Body Burden study EWG did. You say that "What EWG doesn't tell you is that 1) the chemicals [found in the subjects] are found only in tiny amounts and 2) there is no link between the trace chemicals and our health." Yet EWG clearly states the amount in each subject and devotes several pages to explaining that although only low amounts were found in the subjects, low doses (according to them and the research cited) can be harmful over the long term, and there can even be biphasic dose response in which low doses have the opposite (but still harmful) effect of high doses. (See http://www.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden/factsheets/lowdoses.php and http://www.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden/factsheets/he_lowdoses.php. EWG also devotes a lot of space to citing research in which low doses of the chemicals found do indeed cause harmful effects.

You don't address the EWG's claims about the harmful effects of low doses nor take on the research they cite. It makes your statement that EWG doesn't acknowledge the issue at all seem disingenuous, at best.

As I'm trying to understand what the truth is, I'd appreciate if you could address my concerns and answer these questions. Thank you very much. I appreciate your time and efforts.

Jane Felton

The editor replies:

We do not claim that EWG never says there is reason to fear low doses of chemicals, cites studies supporting their views, or encourages fruit and vegetable consumption, but rather that they gloss over the significance of the chemicals under discussion being in smaller amounts than mainstream science considers harmful, cite studies (sometimes merely their own) that are not corroborated by the bulk of mainstream toxicological and epidemiological reports, and push organic produce without having demonstrated any health benefit to it while frightening people away from more affordable non-organic produce. One can never entirely rule out the possibility of undetected harm from any substance, but surely the burden of proof is on those making extraordinary claims.

Todd Seavey