Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an environmental organization that specializes in research, litigation and lobbying in the areas of toxic chemicals, agricultural subsidies, public lands, and corporate accountability. EWG is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization whose mission, according to its website, is “to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment.” According to the Wikipedia entry, EWG was founded in 1993 by Ken Cook and Richard Wiles, and is headquartered in Washington, D.C. A sister organization, the EWG Action Fund, is the lobbying arm of the organization and was founded in 2002.
The EWG website states that the group “has pioneered the use of digital technologies to expose the harms done by misconceived crop subsidies, crop insurance and runaway agricultural pollution. The organization has also empowered American families with easy-to-use, data-driven tools to help reduce their exposure to potentially harmful ingredients in foods, drinking water, cosmetics and other household products. These unique digital resources are searched hundreds of millions times by consumers, journalists and policy makers.”
Twenty three EWG lobbyists are veterans of Congressional offices – so-called “revolving door” lobbyists.
Follow this link to explore the Environmental Working Group’s interactions with donors, organizations, activists and influentials.
EWG received 43 grants from 37 foundations in 2013 totaling $5,577,400.
EWG was selected by the ClimateWorks Foundation to receive two large re-grants through its project, the Climate and Land Use Alliance and a program called Disrupting the Global Commodity Business.
The origin of the Environmental Working Group is not as the group describes. In 2002, Ken Cook told the New York Times that EWG was started in 1993, yet the organization appears to have begun receiving high-dollar foundation grants as early as 1989, mostly through the IRS tax exemption of a proxy, first through the Center for Resource Economics/Island Press and then through the Tides Foundation.
CRE/Island Press was a small, environmental book publisher that was created as simply “the Island Press” in 1979 by mega-wealthy Andrew Mellon banking heiress Catherine Conover. On December 5, 1984, Conover reincorporated Island Press as the Center for Resource Economics/Island Press, and selected for its new leader Charles Savitt, a director of the California-based Tides Foundation, a multi-million-dollar money funnel for anonymous donors to fund start-up left-wing groups (Tides, at the time, monitored and mentored 50 such programs). Conover was one of Tides’ largest donors, and she was able to convince Tides’ talented strategist Drummond Pike to serve as a director and officer of this new Center for Resource Economics / Island Press. He remained an officer of the organization from December 1984 until April 2013.
Drummond Pike served as an Island Press officer for five years before Ken Cook joined the organization and helped form the foundation for what would become Environmental Working Group. Cook was a former staffer with the failed 1988 Michael Dukakis Presidential campaign, but before joining national politics had served as a lobbyist and press director with the World Wildlife Fund.
Cook began his tenure with the fledgling EWG in 1989 as a Vice President for Policy, while Pike was Chairman of the Board. Pike continued to serve on the board, replicating earlier success he’d had with the Tides Foundation since 1976, helping to establish Cook and EWG under the auspices of Island Press and, it seems, helping EWG to secure its first 17 grants – $5 million worth – from specifically targeted foundations. Pike remains EWG’s chairman to this day.
From the beginning EWG followed a pattern of bold moves generally associated with Pike’s Tides Foundation projects. For example, in 1992, EWG formed the Clearinghouse for Environmental Advocacy and Research (CLEAR) to cope with the rising threat of public negativity towards the environmentalism movement, fueled by an increase in consumer information about the elite wealth bankrolling “grassroots” environmentalism. Notably, the Tides Foundation was already working on the same issue, leading many to believe that Ken Cook was taking tactical direction for his new organization directly from Drummond Pike.
In 1993, EWG separated from its parent non-profit, Island Press, and established itself as a project under the umbrella of the Tides Foundation. Because Tides is selective as to which organizations are allowed to become its direct allies, outsiders speculate that Pike shepherded EWG through the difficult affiliation process. Although Ken Cook contends that 1993 is the “true” origin year for EWG (and the first year which co-founded Richard Wiles appears in the organization’s literature), it remained officially unincorporated for six additional years. In 1994-95, the IRS forced EWG into a reorganization, at which point Pike shifted EWG into the newly created Tides Center, which had no effect on EWG’s IRS status.
On February 5, 1999, EWG emerged from the Tides umbrella and incorporated in Washington DC. Drummond Pike is now Chairman of EWG’s Board of Directors.
Ken Cook, founder and president of EWG, was born in 1952 in Affton, Missouri and grew up in the St. Louis area. He earned a B.A. in history, B.S. in agriculture and M.S. in soil science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He joined the environmental movement in the late 1970s, serving as chief lobbyist and later as press director at the World Wildlife Fund until early 1988, when he departed to work as a campaign aide for Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential run. After the Dukakis bid collapsed, Cook took advantage of an opportunity to work with Catherine Conover at the Center for Resource Economics / Island Press on the creation of the Environmental Working Group.
The EWG website lionizes Cook as being “widely recognized as one of the environmental community’s most prominent and influential critics of industrial agriculture, U.S. food and farm policy and the nation’s broken approach to protecting families and children from toxic substances.”
Cook’s 2013 compensation package included $251,595 and First Class travel.
He is the author of dozens of articles, opinion pieces and reports on environmental, public health and agricultural topics. Under Cook’s leadership, the Environmental Working Group has moved steadily to the left. Despite his ties to the DNC party structure, Cook pulled EWG out of a Clinton-era environmental advisory panel headed by then-Vice President Al Gore — saying of Clinton’s pesticide policy, “[health] risks have only gotten worse during the Clinton administration” and claiming that this generation’s most “progressive” White House actually “catered to the pesticide industry.” While Cook may not be the darling of the Democrats anymore, another political party just loves him: in 2000 an EWG report on farms was the basis of a glowing article in The Militant, the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party.
Ken Cook is married to Deb Callahan and lives in the California Bay Area with their young son, Callahan. Deb Callahan is substantially more experienced, better connected and more politically and movement savvy than her husband.
Her career in the environmental movement began when she graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and took a series of environmental and political organization jobs including a stint as executive director of Americans for the Environment and as New England director for the League of Conservation Voters. She spent the early 1990s with the CITGO oil fortune-based W. Alton Jones Foundation – now defunct and split by quarreling heirs – where she worked closely with the 160-foundation-member Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA), acting as presenter in the EGA’s 1992 annual retreat session, “The Wise Use Movement: Threats and Opportunities.” This is the same issue that EWG’s CLEAR project was designed to combat, though EGA’s project was better-funded.
Callahan then took a leadership position with the Washington, DC League of Conservation Voters, then The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, and then the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. She is currently executive director at Bay Area Open Space Council.
In 2002, the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise filed a complaint with IRS against Environmental Working Group [read the complaint]. The Center called on the IRS [read the news release] to revoke EWG’s non-profit status, charging that EWG lobbied Congress to alter the 2002 Farm Bill using a $1.6 million dollar grant from the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, and that EWG, while still a part of the Tides Foundation, “hid its lobbying political expenditures.” EWG prevented IRS penalties by incorporating its Action Fund in 2002, a 501(c)(4) lobbying group, legally allowed to influence legislation.
According to the Capital Research Center, the EWG often attempts to conflate correlation with causation in an effort to build a public, rather than a scientific consensus around its policy positions.
According to CRC, the Environmental Working Group specializes in fomenting “health scares” about food, pesticides and other products using a predictable methodology: releasing a study which concludes that exposure to an everyday item – baby food, cosmetics, breast milk, tap water, fruits and vegetables – ultimately poses a risk to human health. EWG “findings” typically show that children are most at risk by exposure to the substance in question. The study is then released at a press conference, often arranged by Fenton Communications, with all the trappings of a major scientific breakthrough.
EWG, however, appears to avoid conducting any peer-reviewed research, of the kind published in scientific periodicals and journals. Instead, as Tom and Gretchen Randall note in the December 2003 Foundation Watch, EWG studies “are associative in nature, rather than causal.” “Causal studies, which are used in clinical medical research,” they point out, “demonstrate the degree to which a particular pathogen or other agent affects people. Associative studies simply indicate a correlation. If activists were to use associative research and the precautionary principle together, they might well prohibit the use of beds, since most people who die were lying in them.”
In July 2010, thee Environmental Working Group released a “sunscreen guide” asserting that sunscreen products contain the dangerous carcinogen retinyl palmitate. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) reinforced the EWG guide by telling reporters that “One study found tumors and lesions developed up to 21% faster in lab animals coated with cream containing retinyl palmitate, a Vitamin A derivative that’s in most of the 500 most popular sunscreens. If the product is doing more harm than good, people have a right to know – and the FDA must take action.”
In fact, retinyl palmitate is a common vitamin supplement, available in both oral and injectable forms for treatment of vitamin A deficiency. The director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, Joe Schwarcz, pointed out in the Montreal Gazette that the EWG based its report on laboratory experiments showing that mice exposed to ultraviolet light while having retinyl palmitate applied to their skin developed tumors more quickly than mice that didn’t. However, that study was not peer reviewed; no sunscreen lotion contains enough retinyl palmitate to cause any known problem. Another study from 2009 on hamsters concluded the exact opposite of what the EWG’s preferred study demonstrated.
A properly reviewed study titled, “Safety of retinyl palmitate in sunscreens: a critical analysis,” was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology concluded “there is no convincing evidence to support the notion that [retinyl palmitate] in sunscreens is carcinogenic.” EWG disputed that conclusion.
The New York-based Skin Cancer Foundation disputed the EWG report’s findings and, according to the Palm Beach Post, is worried that “consumers confused about the report might stop using sunscreens.” Over-exposure to sunlight is a well-known cause of skin cancer.
The Orange County Register reported that “Dr. Matt Goodman, a dermatologist in the melanoma program at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, says the Environmental Working Group’s claims on retinyl palmitate are suspect because they rely on research done on mice. … ‘This leads me to conclude that risk is extremely low, if nonexistent.’”
At the end of 2009, the Environmental Working Group released a report on the quality of tap water in various localities across the country. Their results were alarming enough to generate unchecked copycat headlines from newspapers worried about their local water supplies.
Between 2004 and 2008, the EWG found that the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority in Florida “reported 45 impurities in the water,” according to the Pensacola News Journal. The ECUA then commissioned the University of West Florida to examine the water.
“The UWF study showed that the ECUA did not exceed a single water quality standard set forth by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. ‘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 the 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 EWG had tested water that had yet to be treated and passed it off as tap water.
Environmental Working Group published a paper that contributed to the myth that vaccines are leading to a spike in autism in America’s children. In 2004, the EWG released the report titled “Overloaded? New Science, new insights about mercury and autism in children.” EWG claimed that there are “serious concerns about the studies that have allegedly proven the safety of mercury in vaccines” and stoked fears that childhood vaccines like those for Measles, Mumps and Rubella are responsible for increased incidences of autism.
The EWG, which continues to allege a link between vaccines and autism, has, through it’s faulty research, contributed markedly to the decline in vaccination rates in the US and particularly in California. It continues to participate what it terms the “vaccine debate,” despite a uniform scientific consensus that childhood vaccinations are not casually linked to incidents of autism.
The allegations that EWG attempts to substantiate are the result of a study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a scientist in the United Kingdom, who, it has been revealed, fudged his data and is no longer allowed to practice medicine in his home country. His theory that childhood autism was the result of the MMR vaccine has been rejected not just by autism activists but also by the United States Court of Federal Claims.