EWG: The Endlessly Wrong Group

Whenever you pick up the newspaper and read a scary story about chemicals in everyday items that are supposedly killing us, there’s a good chance the group behind the narrative is the worrywarts at the Environmental Working Group. In telling consumers to worry about the monster hiding under the bed (and in the fridge and medicine cabinet), it has no credibility whatsoever. Just ask the real experts: Seventy-nine percent of members of the Society of Toxicology (scientists who know a little something about toxins) who rated the EWG say that the group overstates the health risk of chemicals. And a newly published analysis dissects just how half-baked EWG’s campaigns are.

Every year EWG releases a “Dirty Dozen” report highlighting the 12 foods to avoid due to pesticide residue and generating needless, fear-mongering news stories about how apples and celery are harming us. But what do credible scientists have to say? Researchers with University of California-Davis’ Department of Food Science and Technology analyzed EWG’s 2010 “Dirty Dozen” report, and found that (unsurprisingly) EWG fails basic science.

They write:

The methodology used to create the 'Dirty Dozen' list does not appear to follow any established scientific procedures….

Results from this study strongly suggest that consumer exposures to the ten most common pesticides found on the “Dirty Dozen” commodities are several orders of magnitude below levels required to cause any biological effect. …

In summary, findings conclusively demonstrate that consumer exposures to the ten most frequently detected pesticides on EWG's “Dirty Dozen” commodity list are at negligible levels…

This isn’t the first time a EWG campaign has strained credulity. The group's formula to a scare campaign is to point to the presence of a chemical without credibly establishing that there’s any actual harm (which is what really matters). It’s the dose that makes the poison.

EWG runs the so-called Campaign for “Safe” Cosmetics, which recently found that levels of lead in some lipstick exceed federal limits for lead in candy. Notice the bait-and-switch: We eat candy, but (hopefully) nobody noshes on lipstick. Nonetheless, it provided EWG another platform to recklessly frighten consumers.

“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. Sixty-six percent of the members of the Society of Toxicology disagreed that cosmetics were a “significant source of chemical health risk.”

And that’s what it comes down to: Alarmist activists versus trustworthy scientists. We can’t be the only ones hoping for an end to EWG’s Reign of Error.

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