How the Environmental Working Group Sells Its Message Short – Pacific Standard: The Science of Society

The Hidden Cost of Fear Mongering: How the Environmental Working Group Sells Its Message Short

JAMES MCWILLIAMS September 03, 2014


There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about a new herbicide created by Dow Chemical, but trying to scare parents into thinking their kids will be poisoned on the playground only distracts us from them.


If I took all of my safety cues from the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit advocacy and research organization, I’d live in fear of sunscreen, plastic micro-beads, perfume, my mattress, antibacterial soap, blueberries, the dry cleaners, bug spray, and my yoga mat. I’d be sunburnt, sleep-deprived, foul-smelling, and undernourished with tight hamstrings.

So I tend not get overly riled up by EWG’s red alerts. Of course, I’m appreciative of the fact that every product noted above could kill me, but probably no more easily than my car, which I judiciously maneuver down an especially crazed stretch of Texas interstate a couple times a week to fulfill the most basic requirement of gainful employment (showing up).

But now the EWG is getting the kids involved. In July it warned potential donors that “Thousands of Schools Would Be Close to Toxic Spray Zones” if the Environmental Protection Agency were to approve a new weed killer mixture for use on corn and soybean crops. “There are 5,532 American schools within 200 feet of farm fields that may soon be blanketed with massive amounts of a toxic defoliant,” it explained.

The EWG has every right to raise public concerns about Enlist Duo, but it should have done so by highlighting the real problem with the proposed herbicide, rather than hyping up a possible but unlikely scenario.

I’m both a father and the author of a book on the history of insecticides—American Pests: The Losing War on Insects From Colonial Times to DDT—so any mention of “children” and “toxic” in the same breath pricks up my ears. I was thus more than a little piqued when the EWG explained, “Children in schools and daycare facilities closest to fields would be at increased risk whenever spraying takes place.” Just to the right of this bad news was an image of two bare-chested boys splattered in green slime, the apparent victims of an algal bloom that had corroded their swimming hole—a decontextualized but visually arresting reminder of the personal implications of ecological irresponsibility.

At stake in this case is an herbicide up for approval by the EPA called Enlist Duo. It’s a Dow Chemical formulation that contains the common herbicides glyphosate and 2,4-D. The EWG’s claim is simple enough: This toxic brew will be sprayed in fields near schools, it will volatilize, and kids playing outside will inhale it. The fact that Enlist Duo will be sprayed on GMO crops does little to assuage the public’s apprehensiveness over this perfectly plausible scenario.

Furthering the message of doom and gloom is the environmental media, which reliably acts as a stenographer for EWG press releases. This time it spread the toxic schoolyard findings across the pages of Newsweek,Time, Ecowatch, Organic Authority, and Rodale News, among many others outlets. “Kids go to school to learn,” Leah Zerbe wrote for Rodale, “but if a chemical corporation gets its way they’ll be absorbing more than just knowledge in the classroom.” And so on.

Overblown or not, the news sounded so awful—the word “doused” came up a lot—that I checked in with weed scientist Andrew Kniss, an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming, to see if I should go code red over Enlist Duo. Kniss has degrees in agronomy and agroecology, is well published in leading journals, and has a stated interest in “developing sustainable weed management programs.” His work—as is the case for most weed scientists—focuses largely on the industrial production of crops.

Kniss told me that, at the recommended exposure levels, glyphosate and 2,4-D were “pretty darn safe to most people.” This assessment, one shared by the EPA, was strikingly at odds with Rodale’s mention that we were looking at “a dangerous new pesticide” and the Organic Authority’s insistence that Enlist Duo was an “Agent Orange-Roundup Hybrid.” The fact that 2,4-D has been around since the 1940s (thus not at all new) and that it was an ingredient—and not the most dangerous one—in Agent Orange, rather than Agent Orange per se, made me inclined to find Kniss’ opinion more plausible than the competing ones.

Furthering my skepticism of EWG’s reach for the panic button over Enlist Duo and school kids was another point that Kniss had made earlier on his blog. He wrote:

The authors of the EWG analysis make no attempt to estimate how much of the herbicide we would actually expect children at these schools to be exposed to, they just assume that if schools are close to crop fields they are at increased risk of exposure. This is undoubtedly true, but if we really want to know if the children at these schools are actually at risk, we need to try and estimate the amount of herbicide the children will be exposed to. As an analogy, if you move closer to water the risk of drowning certainly increases; but if the amount of water you’re exposed to is less than a raindrop, the risk of drowning is still negligible.

In light of this concern, Kniss then calculated that if a child ran non-stop for 24 hours in a 2,4-D treated field with a peak concentration of herbicide in the air he would inhale 9,677 nanograms of 2,4-D. To place that figure in perspective, Kniss did something rather brilliant. He took what the EWG itself recommended that the EPA should use as a “point of departure for human health risk” and, using that figure, compared it to the 9,677 nanograms that, under the most extreme circumstances, children would inhale. The result:

Even if the 20 kg child ran around in the sprayed field continuously for 24 straight hours, they would only be exposed to a maximum of 0.0097 mg/day, 14 times less than what would be considered safe using EWG’s proposed standard.

Kniss concluded that “the chronic exposure would be almost negligible.” I suspect that he’s right. I also suspect that the EWG, which is routinely accused of fear mongering, was yet again fear mongering. This tactic is not only unfortunate, but it’s completely unnecessary. The EWG has every right to raise public concerns about Enlist Duo, but it should have done so by highlighting the real problem with the proposed herbicide, rather than hyping up a possible but unlikely scenario.

Dow Chemical created Enlist Duo to accomplish one thing: increase yields of genetically modified corn and soy. All that corn and soy, in turn, will be churned into animal feed and processed food. In and of itself, this is a problem with pervasive implications for personal and ecological health. Virtually every health and environmental concern in food and agriculture today derives from the factory farming that corn and soy make possible. In so far as Enlist Duo would perpetuate that system, the EWG has every legitimate reason to draw upon its considerable resources and condemn it. To distract us with hyperbole about toxic schoolyards is to sell short a far more important message.




How the Environmental Working Group Sells Its Message Short – Pacific Standard: The Science of Society.