Environmental Working Group and the Dirty Dozen
Once a year, news outlets worldwide report the "Dirty Dozen", purportedly a list of the twelve types of conventionally-grown produce most contaminated with pesticides. It's accompanied by a recommendation that consumers wishing to not be poisoned should instead buy organic versions of these. The list is published each year by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and its press release is duly published by virtually every major news outlet — print, TV, radio, and online — with headlines suggesting a catastrophic risk level. EWG has published their Dirty Dozen list every year for over 20 years, to the point that today, every news outlet waits for the annual press release with bated breath, excited to drop what they believe is an awesome health bomb on their audience.
Well, let's qualify that, because there is one genre of news publication that does not promote the Dirty Dozen. It's science news. Why not? Surely the science perspective should advocate healthy eating and avoiding dangerous toxins. But as it happens, neither the Dirty Dozen, nor its parent EWG, have much to do with science. EWG is a political lobbying group for the organic industry, and virtually all of their press releases promote profoundly anti-scientific messages based on their co-founder and president's extreme chemophobia and Neo-Luddite ideology. They are anti-vaccine, anti-cell phone, anti-biotech, anti-sunscreen, and climb aboard every pop-culture train promoting some gross exaggeration or misrepresentation of anything toxic. In fact, 79% of real toxicologists surveyed reject EWG's reports. If this attack sounds most un-Skeptoid-like, it's because I think this is too important to beat around the bush. And I'm not going to ask you to take anything I've just said on faith; we're now going to go through point-by-point evidence supporting all these charges. And by the end of this episode, my hope is that you will never again allow your local news to promote the annual Dirty Dozen list unchallenged.
The Dirty Dozen
Let's begin with the Dirty Dozen list itself. Every year when it's been released, science blogs and magazines have published harsh criticism, with titles like "Dear EWG, This Is Why Real Scientists Think Poorly of You" from The American Council on Science and Health, "How Wrong Is The Latest Dirty Dozen List?" from Biology Fortified, and "The EWG wants us to be afraid of the food we feed our kids" from Salon.com. Nearly all of the criticism focuses on EWG's flawed methodology, and universally it mentions their unawareness of dose. The reality is that there are safe levels of everything, even plutonium (as I often point out), of which you have some 20 million atoms in your body right now, just by living on Earth. Similarly, none of the items on the Dirty Dozen list would have any health consequences for anyone at all.
Correction: More research has shown that this number is probably far higher, around 180 billion plutonium atoms in your body. –BD
Fundamentally, the Dirty Dozen list exists to steer you toward organic alternatives, which EWG openly states. This is completely fallacious, because it suggests that organic produce is free of pesticides. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing in organic certification prohibiting the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers; only their source. Organic crops require the same chemical applications as conventional crops; and substantially more chemicals than genetically modified crops, as those are naturally resistant to the pests for which organic crops require large applications of pesticides. But you'll never hear this from the EWG; they rely on the mistaken belief many consumers have that organic crops are grown without chemicals.
A much better alternative to the Dirty Dozen is the Pesticide Data Program, where the US Department of Agriculture publishes the raw data of real tests of produce. The data isn't exactly presented in a user-friendly manner, but it's downloadable, and scientists like Steve Savage have done the analysis for you. Bottom line? Pesticide detections that are of any level of concern are virtually nonexistent. In 99% of samples tested, there are no detections at all. In that remaining 1%, 99% were less than 1/10 the EPA's tolerance level, and half were less than 1/100 the tolerance level. In all, only 0.67% of samples were at or above the tolerance level, and not a single sample was at a level deemed to be harmful. Yet the EWG would have you believe that eating non-organic produce is little safer than playing Russian Roulette.
Political Lobbying, Not Science
EWG's tax returns, which are public due to their nonprofit status, tell a pretty clear story of what they do. In 2015 (the latest year for which they've made their finances public as of this writing), they spent just under $700,000 in lobbying. $555,000 of this was expenditures to influence a legislative body.
Not only does their board of directors consist of politicians, lobbyists, philanthropists, and attorneys instead of scientists, it includes at least one vehement anti-science activist, Dr. Mark Hyman, the notorious diet and functional medicine quack. It's also heavy on people from the natural skin care industry, just one of its blatant conflicts of interest.
In short, get your food science from food scientists, not from lawyers, lobbyists, and those with skin in the game.
For many people, the fact that EWG promotes the nonexistent vaccine-autism link ends all of their credibility right there, a perspective that's hard to argue with. Their infamous 2004 report "Overloaded? New Science, new insights about mercury and autism in children" is bashed in numerous science articles. Granted that's pretty old, and it's increasingly harder to find recent articles cautioning against vaccination on their site; but they certainly haven't bothered to take all the old stuff down, and they still caution against what they call "mercury" in vaccines. Mercury is a neurotoxin, but EWG appears unable to grasp the basic chemistry involved. While either pure elemental sodium or chlorine would kill you, when bound into the molecule sodium chloride they form harmless salt; similarly, when mercury is bound into ethylmercury, it is no longer a neurotoxin. To portray it as dangerous, you have to discard Chemistry 101. The dose makes the poison. People are in no danger at all from the quantities of either salt or ethylmercury that we actually encounter in daily life.
Placing a cherry atop EWG's anti-mercury activism is their promotion of a YouTube video that was debunked right here on Skeptoid, all the way back in 2007. The video claims to show clouds of mercury vapor rising from a mercury amalgam dental filling in an extracted tooth, made visible by holding the tooth in front of a phosphorescent screen. "1,000 times the atmospheric mercury limits imposed by the EPA," says the EWG, but not so fast. What's been proven in several analyses of the video is that what you see is simply water vapor. The tooth is wet. Mercury vapor is six times heavier than air, and would fall directly to the floor if it were present, which it's not. Does we do science, EWG?
The first thing that popped up for me on my visit to the EWG website was a dialog to receive their "Guide to Safer Cell Phone Use", a PDF containing all the usual warnings about radiation. Nobody has ever proposed a sound theoretical argument suggesting how cell phones or other commonplace radio signals might be harmful, and no studies have ever found any evidence of anyone ever being harmed in the slightest over many decades of constant exposure to billions of people. "Experts are split," says their PDF, which is patently false. No actual experts have ever found any reason we should be concerned with cell phone radiation.
Their 2015 FAQ document asserts that carrying a phone in your pocket reduces a man's sperm count, and also claims that only short-term studies find no harm from cell phone use while longer studies always find harm. None of these are true.
A search on their website for "GMO" returns countless articles warning of the dangers of genetically engineered crops — dangers which have never been discovered to exist, nor plausibly theorized. This is not surprising, giving EWG's deep ties to the organic industry.
The arguments made in several of these articles I read state that GMO crops designed to be naturally resistant to herbicides used to kill weeds in the field (thus increasing yield with fewer resources) are more likely to be contaminated with herbicides. More likely than what? All commercial-scale crops use herbicides, whether they are GMO, conventional, or organic. They also point to "superweeds" that have evolved in response to common herbicides; though this problem has nothing to do with GMO crops, as it's always been the case in all farming, and is equally a problem for organic farmers. It's all just baseless fearmongering, intended to drive you toward buying more expensive produce slapped with the organic marketing label.
For years EWG also put out an annual "Hall of Shame" for sunscreens list. Today they've softened it up by calling it Sunscreen 101. Sunscreen is super important, as skin cancer can be deadly, and is common worldwide; the Skin Cancer Foundation says sunscreen reduces your chances of getting it. Yet EWG tells you to use it only as a "last resort". They warn against virtually every common sunscreen, pointing to their active ingredients as being poisonous; and unfortunately, there are parents who avoid putting sunscreen on their children because of such unfounded claims. Lifehacker's article on this was titled "The Sunscreen Ratings That Scare People Every Year Are BS".
Could there be another conflict of interest here? EWG sells an "EWG Verified" seal that sunscreen manufacturers can put on their products — and since the media has given their annual fearmongering tremendous exposure, manufacturers may need to do something like that to stay in business. It costs $500 just to apply for the seal — non-refundable, of course.
So the next time you see your favorite news outlet reporting the annual Dirty Dozen list, or sunscreen ratings or anything else from the Environmental Working Group, send them a link to this episode, or to any of the specific articles debunking the EWG claims listed in the references below. There are real problems in this world, and to solve them, we need a realistic understanding of them. Exaggerating or inventing fictional problems makes everything worse, as it contributes to a greater public misunderstanding, and consequently reduces our ability to solve real problems that actually do exist. So for now, put the Environmental Working Group at the bottom of your list of lobbyist ratings, and join me in hoping they work on getting some of their own toxins out of their own system.
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