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Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group on healthy choices, greenwashing and policy stagnation

Ken Cook

Ken Cook

Twenty-one years ago, environmental lobbyists and researchers teamed up to form the Environmental Working Group, what co-founder Ken Cook calls “a think tank that could throw a punch.”

In the years since, Cook has been named a top grassroots activist by The Hill and the ultimate green game-changer by The Huffington Post.

The Environmental Working Group conducts original research on chemicals used in farming and industry, cosmetics and hygiene products, manufacturing, and other topics.

Cook said his drive to change the way people interact with industrial chemicals changed when he became a father almost six years ago, and yes, there are ways to achieve a healthy lifestyle

without abandoning the modern world to “go live in a yurt.”

On April 10, he’ll come to Concord to speak at the third annual Anticancer Lifestyle Program Lecture at the Concord Audi, and he spoke with the Monitor recently about his upcoming talk and things he’s learned along the way.

Your talk is billed as helping people make choices to promote a healthier environment now and in the future. How much difference can one person really make in a world filled with chemicals?

I come to this with genuine humility on the topic. The whole notion of preventing cancer is pretty fraught, and I’m looking forward to having a great dialogue with everyone.

I will be talking about what we have learned about reducing exposure to lots of toxic chemicals, many but not all carcinogens, through adjustments to everyday life that don’t require someone to divorce themselves from modern life.

It doesn’t mean you can prevent a personal diagnosis of cancer, or if you’ve been diagnosed that it can heal you. But it’s a stance built on the science that made it clear if you follow certain patterns to reduce your exposures, you stand a better chance of reducing the risk factors of certain cancers.

People won’t at the end want to go live in a yurt and eat only vegetables that they grow themselves within 100 feet of their yurt. We’ll be reaching for something a little more practical and empowering than that.

What are some of the basic choices you recommend for people looking to limit their exposure to chemicals?

Making dietary changes is a huge way to do that: eating lower on the food chain, eliminating or reducing meat consumption, being careful about which fish you eat.

We make recommendations for people to reduce pesticide exposure with the guide we publish based on our analysis of Department of Agriculture lab tests of produce. We basically find each and every year there are a number of fruits and vegetables that have the highest exposure to pesticides, and you want to try to buy those in their organic form.

But you don’t have to buy all organic food. You can shop for many conventional fruits and vegetables that happen to be low in pesticides simply because of the way pesticides are used in those cases.

You can avoid asthmagens by shopping smarter for cleaning products, and being smarter about personal care products.

What was your initial vision for the Environmental Working Group?

Twenty years ago, we wanted to really have a think tank that could throw a punch in the policy debate. We wanted to start some fights over things like chemicals in our drinking water (and) air pollution, and we wanted a public discussion through data-digging.

Do you think that mission is still possible?

This is not the happiest point to be making when you’re an environmentalist who’s been walking halls of Congress for decades, (but) we really have reached a point, some time back, in fact, where the policy-making process has frozen.

Congress hasn’t sent a major environmental protection law to the president’s desk for almost 18 years. We’re approaching a generation since we overhauled or introduced a statute to address what we recognize with science as concerns.

EWG started as policy shop, and while we still have great policy work and lobbyists . . . we know now that in order to make change happen, we have to keep up with consumers and the companies we want to thrive, to be responsible and profitable, to do what government can no longer do.

Why has the landscape changed so dramatically?

Two things happened. . . . I usually in my talks will bring up a picture of (George H.W. Bush) being applauded after signing air pollution control legislation by (environmentalists) and by the embodiment of conservative anti-regulatory fervor at the time, Dan Quayle.

It’s a moment to remind people of how much is changed in the policy world. I don’t think we could pass today the controls we passed in 1990.

You can take a number of steps at the state level . . . but we all know that a federal framework is what is needed in most of these instances, and it’s very hard to even strengthen the framework we have.

The other major shift was what happened to the media.

Not a day goes by in the organization that we don’t shudder at the prospect that because business models have failed, we no longer have the journalists on the beat that we had five, 10, certainly 15 years ago.

What does that mean for communicating your research results?

Years ago, when we felt like we had pretty good content, we called reporters, not to express our precious opinions about news, but to call with a research result, a publication that we were putting out. We had a very good batting average with producing news: here are the contaminants in the drinking water, here is a list of pesticides in baby food.

When, now, you have good content like that, and you can’t get anybody on the phone, that’s a problem. I really do think that there has been no more serious threat to our democracy other than the money in politics.

If politics and policy making has been put in check, how are you going to regulate personal care products? We want to make sure individuals have some pathway to do that themselves.

How have you adapted to that new landscape?

It hasn’t changed the work we do, but we spend more time translating that work into information that’s useful for consumers because the demand is out there. People want the information and if they can’t find it from a reputable source, they’ll find it from a bad source, a quack, and we pride ourselves on our science.

We try to look at our content now and our distribution of our research results as something that we have to package across various channels to build the audience we used to build by getting into the Wall Street Journal.

Let’s talk a little about green-washing. How can people really know what labels like ‘all-natural’ mean?

That is one of the ways in which environmentalism has effected the economy, through the language of marketing. You can hardly find a marketer out there now who isn’t pushing sustainable, clean, green, all these values that we made imperatives for consumers.

The challenge of the next 10 to 15 years is to redeem those values in the marketplace, to hold companies accountable.

In the cases of personal care products, there are no rules and regulations, no pre-market testing. They don’t test the final products. So we came up with the (Skin Deep) system we are very confident is the best advice we can give, until the government steps up and develops a regulatory system.

You have to turn to sources you trust, sources that appeal to science to find meaning from labels like “all-natural,” which really doesn’t mean too much at all.

We’ll be launching a food database, like our Skin Deep database, coming later this year, looking at 80,000 foods. It is kind of shocking, all the things put into foods that are called “natural.” That’s a label you can’t really trust.

Organic is a designation consumers can and should trust, but that doesn’t mean everything labeled organic is something you should eat all the time. There’s organic ice cream, and I could do with a little less of that.

Has that stagnation with governmental regulation translated to a different approach for environmentalists?

We don’t want to think we can shop our way out of environmental problems, but there’s a greater and greater emphasis on going to consumers, on helping people make decisions that by their own action can alleviate some of these problems.

When I give these kinds of talks, I’ll look out and I’ll inevitably see a couple of women with babies in their tummies and it’s getting harder and harder for me to look them in the eye and say we need Congress to pass comprehensive toxic chemical laws to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Because I’m really saying, “It will take years to pass a law, if ever, and then we will need regulations, which will take years and years to issue. That baby is very likely to be in graduate school before the chemicals he’s exposed to are regulated.”

Maybe because I had the good fortune to have a child later in life, but dealing with the urgency of caring for his needs every day, I can no longer say that. It raises the stakes for those of us involved in the field to help families make decisions to avoid some of the risk, even as we build some of the political strength to overcome the opposition from industry to some of our laws.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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