... Nature is not outside of us. It is in us. We take air into our lungs, water courses through our bodies, we ingest plants and animal parts that in turn become part of our bodies. The meat we eat… the wine or soda we drink, the outdoor grill smoke we inhale, and the fumes from cars and electric power companies all come to rest in our bodies. The term “environment” is therefore misleading. Environmentalism is centrally about you and what enters and becomes part of your body, as well as the way your body is part of nature.
--George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling, “The Little Blue Book”
Ken Cook recognized his goal at an early age – in the Ozarks foothills, watching his uncles Paul and Claude care for their cattle and the hardscrabble pastureland that kept their herds thriving – even as neighboring farmers overworked their land.
This relationship between the land, water and ultimately health hit home. Ken Cook spent winters with his parents in St. Louis and went on to earn a Master’s degree in soil science at the University of Missouri. But his most important lesson – that the land’s limitations had to be understood and respected – came from his father Aubrey’s brothers, who kept their connection to the land. They handed down their own observations and the lore they had inherited from their father and his father, family patriarch Henry Cook, who had settled the Madison County, Missouri, homestead back in 1869.
By the time he finished graduate school in 1976, Ken was a committed environmentalist and convinced that Paul and Claude were every bit as wise as the professors who spouted industrial agribusiness’s conventional wisdom – that pesticides got tied up in the soil and didn't get into ground water and that nitrogen fertilizers and other conventional farming techniques had minimal impact on the environment. He recognized the building evidence that agricultural chemicals persisted in the food chain and were responsible for the recently discovered Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Inspired by his uncles and by biologist Barry Commoner, whose 1971 book, The Closing Circle, introduced the concept of sustainability to an urban audience, Ken Cook moved to Washington, D.C. and nailed down his first job as an agriculture analyst at the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress.
He soon perceived that the environmental movement was not addressing industrial farming practices, such as fencerow-to-fencerow planting, that were inflicting lasting damage on the land and water and bankrupting farmers to boot. He aspired to transform the nation’s agriculture policies to conserve natural resources and create a food system that would feed the American populace in a healthy and sustainable way.
In 1984, he was one of a small group of agriculture experts who came up with the idea of offering farmers subsidy benefits to protect fragile, highly erodible land, wetlands and virgin prairie. Working as a consultant for several environmental groups, he helped persuade Congress to create the Conservation Reserve Program, which became law as part of the 1985 farm bill.
The EWG story starts there.
In 1993, Cook and Richard Wiles, an expert on pesticides and children's health, organic agriculture and Western water scarcity, launched the Environmental Working Group. Emphasizing that much of what had been taught about the land was wrong, Cook and Wiles aimed to set the story straight: Industrial farms were taking an enormous toll on the land and water.
They saw that if we could shift money from traditional farm subsidy programs to conservation, we could build a food system that would feed the population in a healthy and sustainable way. The odds were stacked against it – the farm block is far more powerful than the oil lobby or the financial community. But if any group could tell the story, it was EWG. In contrast to larger, established environmental organizations that specialized in litigation and advocacy, Cook and Wiles decided to engage in scientific research, data-driven analysis and old-school investigative muck-raking.
EWG’s first investigation, “Pesticides in Children’s Food,” published in 1993, broke new ground by demonstrating that millions of American children were being exposed to powerful weed- and bug-killers, some containing carcinogens. This report and those that followed helped pave the way for passage of the federal Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, which modernized how the Environment Protection Agency regulates pesticides, with better protection for developing children and other vulnerable people.
At the same time, they began investigating the farm subsidy system. A Freedom of Information Act request filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture unearthed stacks of mainframe computer tapes containing more than 100 million farm subsidy records.
Chris Campbell, who came aboard as EWG’s head of information technology, transferred the tapes onto a hard drive and ran an analysis that yielded stunning results – for starters, that 74,000 subsidy recipients had addresses in Manhattan, Beverly Hills and other posh, and generally tractor-free, communities. EWG’s 1995 report, “City Slickers,” published on the eve of Congressional debate on the farm bill, became a foundation stone in the argument for reform of the farm subsidy system to shift federal money from subsidies to conservation.
EWG then built an interactive Farm Subsidy Database that went online in 2001 as the public was stepping up its use of the Internet and the worldwide web. It had a simple goal, to use original, evidence-based research to fight for a more equitable, sustainable farm policy. It was an instant hit in farm country, generating tens of millions of searches. It made the farm subsidy system a topic of national conversation, winning support for Cook’s view that subsidies encouraged big farmers to use too many chemicals and exhaust their fields.
In 1998, Cook had another epiphany, this one about pollution. For decades, environmentalists had insisted that toxic chemicals in air and water were probably getting into people’s bodies. Industrial polluters retorted that they were not, at least not enough to matter.
“Why guess?” Cook thought. “Why not find out for sure by testing people’s bodies?” The results could help policymakers and regulators target the worst pollutants that showed up in people. Cook and Pete Myers, a biologist and co-author (with Theo Colburn and Dianne Dumanoski) of the book Our Stolen Future, were the first guinea pigs. Soon more volunteers stepped forward to have their blood tested. The Human Toxome Project, as EWG called it, showed that people generally tested positive for several hundred chemicals, some of them highly toxic, some banned for years.
This way of defining the issue changed the debate, opening up the definition of what “environment” truly is. It underscored that we had needlessly narrowed the idea of what represents a healthy environment. We had not just popularized, but literally defined in law, the concept of wilderness as the pinnacle of environmental aspiration and experience in its purest form.
Environmentalists did enormous good with this approach. But we also needlessly left tens of millions of potential supporters stranded with perceptions of the environment that are abstract and unconnected to their daily experience – a mistake no marketer in the commercial world would dare make. EWG redefined the environment as not only the pristine places people may occasionally visit, but also the everyday world in which they live. The wilderness we’re talking about is the unregulated, sometimes dangerous wilderness of consumer products and behaviors, where the Earth and its community of life are almost entirely trammeled by man and where “nature” is a vestige of which only traces remain.
Transforming the meaning of environment meant connecting the dots for millions of people. In EWG’s view, an environmentalist is someone whose health concerns legitimately extend from the chemicals in smog to the chemicals in shampoo. And for many of those people, in particular the majority who don’t primarily identify themselves as environmentalists, the most immediate place to make a personal connection with “environment” and “pollution” is more likely to be when they’re strolling the shampoo section of a drugstore than when they’re trekking up a mountain.
EWG has spent much of the last decade working to reframe the very notion of pollution. Instead of calling to mind an image of belching smokestacks or fouled water, EWG wants “pollution” to evoke everyday experiences that are intimately personal and that anyone can avoid by personal action, such as choosing a shampoo or sunscreen or shopping for produce.
Because so many chemicals in people’s bodies came from personal care products, which were virtually unregulated, in 2004 EWG launched Skin Deep, the most comprehensive cosmetics ingredient website and database in existence. Today, SkinDeep contains information on more than 78,000 personal care products. The site has been searched hundreds of millions of times, and EWG is still pressing for more government vigilance over these products.
The following year, EWG launched a related project, EWG’s Sunscreen Guide.
In 2005 the first edition of EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce appeared. EWG researchers used pesticide-testing data generated by the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration to determine which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables contained the most and least pesticide residues. Produce with the most residues gained a place on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list. EWG urged consumers to buy organic varieties of those items or substitute foods from the Clean Fifteen list, consisting of produce with little pesticide.
EWG’s landmark biomonitoring research, coupled with its online consumer guides, intentionally and boldly broadened the notion of what is typically considered “environmental pollution” to encompass personal chemical contamination from consumer products. We developed these studies out of concern for the health risks posed by the substances themselves and because the chemicals in consumer products are poorly regulated, if at all.
From being the first to test umbilical cord blood (finding up to 287 industrial chemicals, pesticides and pollutants) to publishing test results showing that canned food, formula and baby bottles all were significantly contaminated with BPA, to testing moms and toddlers for flame retardants used in foam furniture, baby mattresses, nap pads, gym pads, television sets, computers and other household items – EWG’s approach changed the game:
- EWG scrutinized the nation’s tap water and mapped water quality.
- EWG took on cancer-causing chromium-6 and won: Within days of EWG’s report, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson met with 11 U.S. senators to discuss EWG’s findings, then launched an initiative to assess chromium-6 pollution nationwide.
- EWG partnered with House and Senate champions and the White House to enact legislation in 2012 that extended health benefits to military veterans and family members exposed to toxic chemicals in severely polluted water at the U.S. Marines’ Camp Lejeune base.
- EWG pushed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to suspend for 20 years any new uranium mining claims on 1 million acres near Grand Canyon National Park.
- Citing EWG’s cutting-edge research on flame retardants that showed that toddlers had up to three times as much flame retardant in their bodies than their mothers, California Governor Jerry Brown of California directed state agencies to review their outdated flammability standards. The measure will likely lead to lower use of flame retardants on upholstery and fabrics.
- EWG sponsored and lobbied for a California ban on BPA in sippy bottles and baby cups. The bill became law in 2011.
- EWG continues to fight for healthy food policies, pushing for reforms to the federal farm bill to eliminate direct payments, cut back on extravagant crop insurance subsidies and restore the “conservation compact” to require growers who accept any subsidies to implement meaningful conservation measures to protect the soil and minimize polluted runoff.
EWG’s agenda never wavered from the vision that launched the organization in 1993. At EWG it’s not just about what we do, but how we do it – no matter the topic or the size of the battle. For two decades EWG has pursued a packed agenda with a wide variety of projects. Its hallmarks are its agility and energy. It can leap into a debate and change it overnight. EWG’s environmental research reports have made enormous contributions to public awareness of environmental health threats.
And EWG doesn’t stop at changing the debate – it changes people, too. It gets them to think about what products they bring into their homes, what foods they feed their families, what they want from their government, and officials and markets respond.
Through it all, EWG’s values, handed down from the farmers, small business people and workers who built America, have remained unwavering. Air, land, water, food, and families – this country’s future – matter. Like Paul and Claude Cook, we watch closely, we listen and we find out what people need. Then we work to protect them and help them take action to create a healthier, greener world for the next generation and beyond.
Explore 20 years of EWG's game-changing work
EWG is turning 20 years old! Celebrate with us by checking out our timeline of 20 years of game-changing work.
See the timeline
Ken Cook on EWG's 20th Anniversary
EWG Co-Founder and President Ken Cook explains a short history of Environmental Working Group and his vision for EWG in the next 20 years.