EWG works on three main policy or issue areas: toxic chemicals and human health; farming and agricultural subsidies; and public lands and natural resources.
EWG has created a cosmetics safety database which indexes and scores products based on their ingredients. Their Guide to Pesticides in Produce lists 44 fruits and vegetables based on the number of pesticides that they were found to contain according to United States Department of Agriculture data. A series of studies testing for the presence of chemicals in people's bodies is known as body burden. The organization has also constructed a national database of tap water testing results from public water utilities. Their work has extended to a variety of other chemicals, including bisphenol A, perchlorate, mercury, flame retardants, and arsenic in treated wood.
In July 2016 they opposed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, referred to by GMO-labelling advocates as the DARK (Deny Americans The Right To Know) Act. EWG publishes a database of agricultural subsidies and their recipients. The EWG Action Fund advocates for farm bill reform in the form of decreased disaster payments and subsidies for commodity crops, and increased funding for nutrition programs, conservation, specialty crops (i.e. fruits and vegetables), and organic agriculture.
The organization investigates and publishes information regarding oil and gas drilling and mining projects that may pose a threat to human health and the environment.
Healthy Child Healthy World (HCHW), a group that "empowers parents to take action and protect children from harmful chemicals", merged with EWG in October 2014.
The EWG publishes a "Dirty Dozen" list of foods with the highest pesticide residue, and recommends that consumers look for organically produced varieties of these products; the annual release of this list attracts widespread media coverage, and is thought to have a significant effect on the produce choices of many Americans. Currently, agroindustrially produced strawberries are heading the list. Critics of the list have suggested that it significantly overstates the risk to consumers of the listed items, and that the methodology employed in constructing the list "lacks scientific credibility".
EWG launched a cell phone radiation report in September 2009 that stated while the long-term effects of cell phone radiation are still being studied, there is sufficient research that shows higher risk for brain and salivary gland tumors among heavy cell phone users. EWG encouraged consumers to look up their cell phone's radiation level, and to wear a headset when talking on the phone to limit their exposure. In August 2013, EWG released a web page which reviews and tabulates studies showing relationships between mobile phone use and low sperm count and sperm quality. The relationships shown are not argued to be due to ionisation of atoms or damage to DNA, but some other biological mechanism—relationships are demonstrated in population surveys, in studies on individuals, and on sperm in vitro in the laboratory environment Contradicting the alarmism of EWG on this issue are physicists who argue that the microwave radiation used by cell phones would merely warm your head slightly (less than a hat), in contrast to high frequency radiation (not used by cell phones), such as x-rays, which can ionize atoms and damage DNA.
Skin Deep is a cosmetics safety database which pairs ingredients in over 79,000 products against 50 toxicity and regulatory databases. The database is intended as a resource for consumers, who can search by ingredient or product when choosing personal care products. This database, however, has had criticism directed towards it for its questionable validity and reliability; accusations of synthesis of information; and the classification of the compound polyparaben, which some allege does not exist.
In July 2008, the EWG first published an analysis of over 900 sunscreens. The report concluded that only 15% of the sunscreens met the group's criteria for safety and effectiveness.
Industry representatives called the 2008 report inaccurate. Personal Care Products Council general counsel Farah Ahmed said that "It is very clear to me that they have a very low level of understanding of the way sunscreens work and the way they are regulated by the FDA and tested by the industry." She expressed further concern saying "I would hate to think that there are parents out there not using sunscreen on their kids because of a report like this that is not based on real science." Representatives from Schering-Plough (Coppertone), Johnson & Johnson (Neutrogena), and Sun Pharmaceuticals Corp. (Banana Boat) also reiterated their products' safety and efficacy.
Dr. Zoe Draelos, a professor at Duke University and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology, said the group made unfair "sweeping generalizations" in its report and their recommendations were based on "very old technology."
In 2009, EWG updated Skin Deep with a report on chemicals in sunscreen, lip balm and SPF lotions. The report states that 3 out of 5 sunscreen products offer inadequate protection from the sun, or contain ingredients with significant safety concerns. The report identifies only 17% of the products on the market as both safe and effective, blocking both UVA and UVB radiation, remaining stable in sunlight, and containing few if any ingredients with significant known or suspected health hazards. Oxybenzone is among the list that blocks both forms of radiation but has been deemed unsafe by the EWG due to controversy over its potential estrogenic and anti-androgenic effects.
In its fourth annual "Sunscreen Guide", issued in May 2010, Environmental Working Group gave generally low marks to currently available sunscreen products. EWG researchers recommended only 39 out of 500 sunscreens available at the time.
EWG operates the farm subsidy database, an online searchable database of recipients of taxpayer funded agriculture subsidy payments. The information is obtained directly from the United States Department of Agriculture via Freedom of Information Act requests.
In the 2007 Farm Bill, EWG is advocating for:Cutting wasteful spending to profitable large farm operations, absentee landlords, ‘hobby’ farmers.
Increased support for organic agriculture, the fastest growing sector of the agriculture industry. In August 2007, EWG president Ken Cook delivered a petition of 30,000 names gathered online to Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI).
Increasing funding for nutrition.
Increasing funding for conservation.
During the fall 2007 debate over the farm bill EWG produced computer generated Google maps of cities across the country identifying the number of federal farm subsidy checks sent to that area. Acting-Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner used the maps during speeches and with the media as he advocated for fundamental reforms to the farm subsidy programs.
EWG has used computer mapping tools to demonstrate the surge in mining claims near the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and other national parks. The House of Representatives passed the first update of the nation’s hardrock mining law since 1872 in 2007. The bill, which bans mining claims around national parks and wilderness and imposes the first-ever royalties on minerals taken from public lands, awaits action in the Senate. EWG staff testified before both the House and Senate during consideration of mining reform.
A February 2000 story about organic vegetables on 20/20 included a comment by John Stossel that ABC News tests had shown that neither organic nor conventional produce samples contained any pesticide residue, and that organic food was more likely to be contaminated by E. coli bacteria. The Environmental Working Group took exception to his report, mainly questioning his statements about bacteria, but also found that the produce had never been tested for pesticides. EWG communicated this to Stossel but the story was rebroadcast months later not only with the allegedly inaccurate statement uncorrected, but with a postscript in which Stossel reiterated his error. After the New York Times took note of the error, ABC News suspended the producer of the segment for a month and reprimanded Stossel, who issued an apology over the incident, saying that he had thought the tests had been conducted as reported, but that he had been wrong. He asserted, however, that the gist of his report had been accurate.
In 2006 EWG sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration contending that the agency knew about the presence of benzene in soft drinks and suppressed the information from the public. EWG described the finding of benzene in soft drinks as a "clear health threat". A second letter in April 2006 reported that 80% of diet sodas tested from 1996 to 2001 in FDA's Total Diet Study had benzene levels above the 5 ppb, including one at 55ppb and a regular cola at 138 ppb.
The EWG issues various red alerts for products or other safety warnings. In 2004, the EWG raised concern over the approval by the Environmental Protection Agency of the herbicide under the trade name Enlist Duo, claiming that schools within the vicinity of farm fields may have children exposed to the herbicide. This claim has been dismissed by scientists as fear mongering and misleading, with little evidence to support the claims made by the EWG.
For Fiscal Year ending December 2006, EWG raised nearly $3.6 million and spent $3.2 million. Over 84 cents out of every dollar go toward EWG's actual programs. As of March 2008, EWG reports 30 staff members with its president Ken Cook earning $192,000 per year in 2006.
Most of the funding comes from foundations, and a partial list of major funders is available on the organization's website. Another large portion of the budget comes from individuals, with the rest stemming from interest, small sales, and consulting for other organizations.