Environmental Working Group Gets “Feisty” about Chemical Pollution
Recently, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) wrote in praise of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and encouraged readers to consider supporting the important work of this nonprofit organization. Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking with Ken Cook, who heads EWG. We wanted to know about EWG’s history, its major areas of focus, and what he sees as the most critical issue on the group’s docket today. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
COOK: I started the Environmental Working Group in the early 1990s, with my colleague Richard Wiles, whom I consider to be a co-founder of the organization. He brought to us a lot of talent — in particular, a great deal of information, knowledge, and experience on toxic chemicals, specifically pesticides.
BPGL: You publish an impressive amount of research at EWG. Who are your researchers?
COOK: They’re all on the staff. We have chemists, engineers, a lot of public health experts and so forth. Over the years, we have built up a program that is heavy on original research and computer analysis. We were one of the first groups in the public interest community, and certainly in Washington, to have a full-time database programmer (who is still with us, by the way).
We started churning out major studies based on government data that hardly anyone had ever seen except the government bureaucrats who were paid to collect it and store it. We started using that information to help make the case for all kinds of policy reforms within the areas of toxic chemicals and pesticides, but also agricultural subsidies.
We’ve done research on the use and destruction of public lands out west by oil and gas exploration and hard-rock mining. The damage that’s been done out there has been tremendous.
And, we’ve put the names of all farm subsidy recipients in the country on line. That has gotten us some notoriety, but it has also had a big influence on the farm subsidy debate.
BPGL: What is the most pressing issue you are working on at EWG today?
COOK: The issue that’s coming to a boil in Washington right now is a debate over reform of the decades-old law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which covers industrial chemicals in this country. This is the group of chemicals that is used in consumer products and automobiles, building materials, and so forth. Not pesticides, but just about every other category of chemical.
This is central to the Environmental Working Group today. We’ve been mounting this campaign, hoping that we’d get momentum for a reform of this federal law for almost ten years. And now we’re right on the cusp of it.
Just today [Tuesday], in fact, there was a big step forward by the American Chemistry Council, which is the trade association of the chemical industry here in Washington. They have announced a set of ten principles to modernize the 1976 law. And we’re encouraged.
I’m sure we’ll probably disagree on more of the fine points than we agree on, but they have stepped up and said, “We need a standard that protects human health. We don’t have that now. We need much more data on chemicals than we have now, in terms of their health and environmental effects, and so forth.” The debate is really starting to unfold, and we’re smack in the middle of it.
BPGL: What actions would you recommend for the average consumer? How can we help support a change in this legislation — besides the obvious action of contacting our legislators?
COOK: First of all, we’re in favor of people getting informed and getting engaged with the debate. The best thing to do, in our opinion, is to go to our website, find the page marked “Kid-Safe Chemicals,” and learn about the legislation.
We feel that this is going to be the basis for the conversation, just like the Cap and Trade concept is in the climate change debate. The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act is going to be the foundation around which the debate is built over the next couple of years.
It’s our opinion that consumers can do two things. You can protect your family and take smart, sensible steps to substantially reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals, such as reducing your exposure to pesticides by shopping from our list (Shoppers Guide to Pesticides) on fruits and vegetables. If you can find them organically grown, you should shop that way. But if you can’t, there are other fruits and vegetables that are pretty low in pesticides, and our list shows you which ones they are. And, you can take steps to reduce exposures in personal care products and furniture items. All those tips are on our website.
But we also know at this stage that we can’t just shop our way out of this. We’re going to have to require some change in government policy that can provide some smarter, more up-to-date rules of the road, if you will, about what kinds of chemicals can be used in what products. And the thing that’s driven the message home for us is the research we conducted looking at chemicals in people, because, if you’re finding chemicals showing up in the blood of people, there’s no question that exposure has happened. So then, the question is, Is the exposure serious enough to be concerned about? How do we cut down on it? Is that something we can, or should, be expected to do as a consumer? Or is that something we should expect companies to do by reformulation, shifting to chemicals that don’t get in people, aren’t as hazardous, and so forth?
And, of course, the ultimate concern is raised when you find chemicals in umbilical cord blood — which we did in a study a few years ago, where, for the first time, we looked at a wide range of toxic chemicals in umbilical cord blood. In just ten babies, we found 280+ chemicals — and that’s when we spent $10,000 in chemical labs for the analysis. If we’d spent $15-, or $20-, or $30,000, for example, who knows how many chemicals we might have found? Maybe 600 or 800 or 1,000 or more. We have another study forthcoming.
BPGL: What will be the difference in the new study? Or will it be a repeat of the original?
COOK: We’ll be screening for some new chemicals and some that we’ve already looked at. And we’ll have an unusual group of babies. I don’t want to reveal who they are just yet. We’ll be releasing that in September. But we did look at some new chemicals that we hadn’t looked for in the previous study.
Most of the chemicals we studied are in everyday consumer products. And we did detect those chemicals in most or all of the ten babies in the second set that we tested.
BPGL: Are these results also from prenatal tests?
COOK: Yes. These are prenatal, umbilical cord blood tests.
We’ve already documented that babies are born with chemicals that were banned in this country 30 years ago. It’s shocking to people, but the umbilical cords of babies born in 2004 — the babies we tested through the American Red Cross research program — contained PCBs and DDT and other chemicals that were banned in the 1970s.
The lesson there is that you don’t want to wait too long. If you know a chemical is dangerous, and it lasts, you definitely want to take steps to ban it, because it will be around for a long time.
BPGL: Did you test for BPA in the second study?
COOK: I’d rather not say yet, but we’re looking for a wide range of chemicals.
BPGL: Your wife gave birth not long after the results of the first study came out. How did the results of the study change your life and your wife’s?
COOK: It had a big effect. The whole point of what we experienced, my wife and I, was that we realized that, as much as we would be careful in what we bought, what we put in the baby’s room, what we fed the baby, all those steps — we were just as careful as we could possibly be — we know that that’s not enough.
I came to resent having to go to my own website [for product safety information], because I came to the conclusion — as she did, and I think a lot of other parents do — that with all the things on the mind of an expectant family, the last thing you feel like you really ought to have to do is what the government ought to be doing, which is standing behind the safety of everyday products, and making sure that, if babies are exposed to them, they’re going to be okay.
When I give our “10 Americans” talk, one of the first things I look for in the audience ahead of time, if I can, is any pregnant women. I want to tell them a little bit about the talk in advance, and say, “Just stick with me. We’ve all been through this. Instead of getting angry, let’s get even. Instead of getting paralyzed, let’s get feisty here.”
BPGL: I’ve wondered about the diversity of topics that you focus on at EWG. How did you get started working in the different major areas you address?
COOK: We started off working mostly on agricultural subsidies. After that, we got involved in pesticides when Richard Wiles came on board, and we developed that area into the broader issues of toxic chemicals.
In the case of public lands, we had a number of prospective supporters come to us and basically say, “Look, we saw what you did on a range of other topics, can you take on the damage being done to our public lands by oil and gas exploration and hard-rock mining?” So, in some ways, the ability to do this kind of research has attracted support.
And now we’ve added a new dimension, which we’re very excited about. It’s very relevant to your work [at Blue Planet Green Living], which is, our online presence has just sort of exploded. We are developing a very large list, approaching 600,000 people who are online supporters. It’s a very active group, and we get suggestions from them, all the time, on topics to look into.
We can’t always look into all of them, or even most of them, but they say things like, “Tell us about toxic chemicals under the sink. We’d like to know what’s in those products.” We get that question all the time. We’re doing research in California now that should begin to shed some light on it, and begin to get us working more in that area. We get questions about nutrition, as another dimension of food safety. We’re starting to do some research on that.
[Our work] has evolved from the basic skill set we put together in forming the Environmental Working Group — the ability to analyze large sets of data; commission original laboratory work; do good, smart writing; and, at the same time, do quantitative analysis — that, in combination, has really helped us make the case to supporters to take on this range of issues.
BPGL: Who are EWG’s major supporters?
COOK: Almost all of our support comes from major donors and foundations, with a growing list of online supporters — we’re very encouraged that we’re able to add more and more of those every day. We’ve been fortunate to put together the kind of content that people want, and more of them are writing and giving us even a small contribution. As you know, on the worldwide web, you can reach a lot of people very quickly and, if they value what you’re doing — as many people do our Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database website and our food news website — even small amounts of money make a big difference.
EWG TOOLS FOR CONSUMERS
Environmental Working Group has a long list of helpful guides to protect your family and pets from environmental toxins. A few of the resource links are included here. For a full list, go to the “Health Tips” section of the EWG website.
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