I used to think the EWG (The Environmental Working Group) was my ally when it came to knowing what to feed my kids – now I know better. When my doctor told me I’d be delivering my baby at 32 weeks, I looked at her like she was crazy. Nothing was ready. Not the crib, not his room, and certainly not me. At the same time, I was also a little relieved. My pregnancy had been miserable, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. My son weighed 3 pounds, 10 ounces at birth and was immediately whisked off to the neonatal intensive care unit. I was still recovering from pre-eclampsia and a C-section, and could barely get myself down the hall to see him. There were so many things to remember about his care that I felt overwhelmed. He came home after about a week but then had to be readmitted a few days later because he couldn’t regulate his body temperature. I felt helpless and afraid. In those early days, he spent a lot of time sleeping, and that gave me plenty of time to search the Internet for parenting advice. The strange thing about parenting in the social media age is that it’s both overwhelming and empowering. You can always find plenty of answers to your 2 a.m. feeding questions — but which answer is right? Like everyone else addicted to social media, parents gravitate toward like-minded people for parenting advice, articles, clever memes and book recommendations.

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But parenting-by-Internet isn’t just about finding information. Fretful new parents eventually become parent curators, sharing their own collection of resources. Part of what drives the cycle of searching and curating is the desire to figure out who you are as a parent and who you want to be. What’s your personal parenting brand? Attachment parenting? Free-range? Helicopter? Tiger mom? Snowplow? Peaceful parenting? The options are as endless as the Internet. Once I started to recover from pre-eclampsia and my son grew strong enough to come home again, I desperately wanted to put my miserable hi-tech pregnancy and birth behind me and parent in an intuitive and natural way. I wanted it to feel easy. In those early days, my personal parenting brand was a combination of natural and attachment parenting with a dash of “whatever works.” I practiced co-sleeping and wore him most of the day in a sling. I spent scads of money on the right lactation consultant so I could breastfeed successfully. I bought expensive natural baby-care products and organic baby food. I felt strong and empowered, and no small part of that was fueled by the mass of information I was getting from the parenting information bubble in which I’d found myself. I frequented the Mothering.com message boards and Kellymom.com for breastfeeding. I read the Dr. Sears “Baby Book” and Naomi Wolf’s takedown of the hi-tech birth industry, “Misconceptions.” And the cherry on top of the placenta smoothie was that I was living in San Francisco at the time, so I was surrounded by plenty of like-minded parents in real time too. Within the natural parenting universe, anti-corporate sentiment is common.

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Parents consciously reject “big food” conglomerates, formula companies and anything emblazoned with licensed characters. But there are corporations in the natural parenting universe too, with carefully composed brands backed by strategy and money. “Dr. Sears” is one of the most recognizable names in the baby products industry. Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company is known for its line of nontoxic natural baby products. Even health and wellness gurus the Food Babe and Gwyneth Paltrow (aka GOOP) have crafted strong personal brands that resonate with their followers, many of whom are moms. But what is the value behind the brand? What do these companies and personalities stand for? Despite its relatively unassuming name, one of the most recognizable and highly trusted brands for many parents is the Environmental Working Group, or EWG. I know the EWG well. I frequently relied on their first “Dirty Dozen” list to tell me when I should buy organic and avoid those dangerous pesticides dripping from my “dirty” conventional produce. Like so many other parents, I just assumed the EWG’s recommendations were incontrovertible. Blogger Shayna Murray relied on the EWG’s dirty dozen and sunscreen guides when she first became a mom too. “My daughter has both eczema and mild asthma so I was always looking at ways I could keep her conditions under control while minimizing the use of medication.

Mom and daughter buying meat for dinner

Anything that I could do that seemed “natural” just made sense to me.” It was only fairly recently that I learned that even though the EWG has secured the trust of many parents, some of their warnings and recommendations don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. So how did they become such a trusted name? “Environmental Working Group” sounds so much drier than Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. Their no-frills, academic-sounding name has always made the EWG appear legitimate, apolitical and above the fray. The name says this is the place for information. We’re trustworthy. We’re doing the work. Formed in 1983, the Environmental Working Group became a household name by publishing buying guides aimed at warning consumers about the toxins and chemicals all around them. Buying the wrong countertop spray could put your health at risk, or so the EWG’s concerns about these products seemed to suggest to nervous, environmentally conscious parents.

Young woman shopping in supermarket

Young woman shopping in supermarket

EWG’s consumer guides are so commonly cited by mainstream media outlets that many parents accept their recommendations without question. For years I was one of them. I remember pondering the produce options at Whole Foods because every decision at the grocery store felt important, like I was protecting my child from dangerous chemicals. Elizabeth Williams, a mom I spoke with, says she also used to follow EWG’s advice, even though “these lists also caused me quite a bit of anxiety, because my family’s budget simply couldn’t afford organic produce or the brands of recommended sunscreen.” Parents like myself often interpret these warnings as cause for fear and alarm, even when scientific evidence to support the EWG’s concerns or calls for labeling is lacking.

Hispanic mother and children in grocery store

When experts review the EWG’s consumer guides, the findings often come up short. In their Dirty Dozen list, the EWG publicizes what they call “dirty” pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables without mentioning that what they describe as “dirty” pesticide residue levels are actually safe because they’re well below “tolerance” levels set by the EPA. In their most recent sunscreen guide, the EWG warns consumers to avoid sunscreens containing oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, but the U.S. Skin Cancer Foundation and many toxicologists disagree. The EWG recommends that consumers avoid GMOs despite the scientific consensus on their safety.

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Their warnings about formaldehyde in baby products got Johnson & Johnson to remove a preservative from their baby shampoo formulation, even though the amount of formaldehyde was miniscule and not associated with any elevated cancer risk. Dr. Alison Bernstein, the mom and scientist behind the popular Facebook page Mommy PhD, has been critical of the EWG’s methods: “Instead of providing knowledge and education to consumers, the EWG has built a brand around small bits of information designed to induce fear. Their hazard scores in the Skin Deep database exaggerate risks and do not consider exposure, which they admit in their methodology.”


By Jenny Splitter from Salon.com