Breast Cancer: Pink-Washing Pollutants

BY ON October 19, 2011

 Elisa BatistaOctober is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and there’s no escaping it. Everywhere I turn, from the guy at my local supermarket’s deli wearing a pink ribbon pinned to his baseball cap, to the inundation in my email box with offers to buy pink tee-shirts, pink bracelets, and even “pink” perfume, there is no doubt that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

As a woman, I certainly support the mission to find a cure for breast cancer, and even subscribe to several newsletters: Susan G. Komen For the Cure, National Breast Cancer Coalition and Breast Cancer Fund. There are many advocacy groups, and many of my friends have either raced for these groups or are affiliated with them. I read and donate when I can.

But as an environmentalist, and member of the Moms Clean Air Force, there is one pet peeve of mine: the pink-washing of toxins and pollutants that cause cancer. It will be a good day when pink mixes with green.

Most recently, Susan G. Koman for the Cure was called out by another breast cancer advocacy group, the Breast Cancer Action, for selling perfume with ingredients that are regulated as: “a) toxic and hazardous, b) have not been adequately evaluated for human safety, and c) have demonstrated negative health effects.”

According to the Breast Cancer Action website:

Many companies that raise funds for breast cancer also make products that are linked to the disease. Breast Cancer Action calls these companies “pinkwashers.” BMW, for example, gives $1 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure each time you test-drive one of their cars, even though pollutants found in car exhaust are linked to breast cancer. Many cosmetics companies whose products contain chemicals linked to breast cancer also sell their items for the cause.

Breast Cancer Action, by the way, helped draw attention to pink rubber duckies and pink bracelets that contained the toxic chemical polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVCs are used extensively in the manufacture of food packaging as well as in medical products, appliances, cars, toys, credit cards and rainwear. PVC’s also act as a hormone, or estrogen, which is linked with the development of breast cancer. It was during this time that the group released these other facts about breast cancer:

70 percent of people with breast cancer have none of the known risk factors. The so-called known risk factors, like late menopause, having children late in life, and family history of cancer are present in only 30 percent of breast cancer cases.

Non-industrialized countries have lower breast cancer rates than industrialized countries. People who move to industrialized countries from countries with low rates develop the same breast cancer rates of the industrialized country.

Estrogen is a hormone closely linked with the development of breast cancer. Numerous synthetic chemicals act like estrogen in our bodies, including common weed killers and pesticides, plastic additives or by-products, ingredients in spray paints and paint removers, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used extensively in the manufacture of food packaging as well as in medical products, appliances, cars, toys, credit cards and rainwear.

Ionizing radiation from x-rays and nuclear waste is a proven cause of breast cancer.

In other words, there is a strong link between environmental factors and breast cancer.

When will we tie the two together?

As a 34-year-old woman who has yet to receive a mammogram, I hope we make this connection and find a cure for breast cancer in my lifetime. Then all that running, wearing pink, buying and raising money won’t be in vain.


TOPICS: Latino Community, Pollution, Social Justice

  • As a breast cancer survivor, I have always been skeptical of “the pink.” I am sorry to see that the Susan Komen fund doesn’t include green on its color wheel, but glad my skeptical instincts continue to serve me well.

    I have always felt that more attention should be paid to finding and eliminating the causes of breast and other cancers. Thanks for giving me some facts to back up my argument.

  • Hi Judith, Thank you for writing and validating my own concerns about all this pink. I, too, would like to see more dollars in preventing breast cancer, and not only in helping women detect it. Both are important to tackle the disease. All my best, Elisa

  • Thank you for raising this vital topic, Elisa.
    Your quote from Breast Cancer Action is THE point…From the food we eat to personal care products of all kinds to household cleaning products to laundry products to carpeting and everything mentioned above, it seems imperative for the good health of women and their families, to be diligent, not complacent, about the quality of the things we use.
    The things we fill our homes with, and the things we surround ourselves with, right down to bedding and even the beds themselves, all have an impact on health.

    And please remember, just because something is made of recycled materials does NOT mean that it is free of horrendous and outgassing chemicals. (Certain recycled content shopping bags are one potently toxic example. I recommend organic cotton bags – they last a long time, too!)
    The good news is that increasingly, we do have access to a beautiful panoply of non-toxic, health enhancing alternatives.
    Making these kinds of choices can go far towards prevention and better health. For each person individually, and for the wider environment.

    EcoMama & Healthy Spaces Specialist/Designer,
    Alisa Rose

    • Thank you for reminding us of how toxic the manufacturing process is. So many products in our daily lives, including our furniture, are pumped with hazardous chemicals, or contain traces from the manufacturing process itself. I, for one, try to do the best that I can: buy organic when it is available, and read labels.

      It isn’t realistic to find out what every single item in your home is made of, which is why it is important that the government protect us from unscrupulous companies.

  • My sister-in-law was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. When she outlined all the procedures and medicines she’ll need to endure in the next few weeks, it was heart wrenching. It’s hard to believe some organizations educating about cancer hadn’t figured out that women don’t need any more toxics added to the chemical cancer soup, they need prevention and a cure. Thanks, Elisa for bringing this issue to light…again!

    • Hi Ronnie, I am so sorry to hear about your sister-in-law. I wish her a speedy and painless recovery!

  • Ana Flores

    Oh, how absurd…and so easy to fall pray. Thanks for shedding some light on all of this and making us aware that we need to question, question, question all the time

    • Thanks, Ana! It really is hypocritical of these companies to be for breast cancer research, and include toxic chemicals in their products.

  • Marcia Yerman

    Thanks for this Elisa.

    Having written about the “Safety in Cosmetics Act” legislation, I learned how some of the biggest breast cancer supporters in the cosmetics space have a ton of toxins in their products.

    Below is a paragraph from that article referencing that conflict:

    Speaking about how big brands were working to capitalize on consumer interest in greener alternatives, Malkan referenced name players who were either creating alternative lines to their regular cosmetics or buying pre-existing “green” labels, while still using toxins in their other products. She singled out Estée Lauder for specific criticism. Malkan suggested, “If they can use less parabens or formaldehyde releasing toxins in the Origins line, why don’t they extend that to their other products? How can they support breast cancer research and at the same time have carcinogens in their makeup?”

    Here’s the link for the complete article:

    • Thanks for the link, Marcia! That is outrageous!

      yeah, don’t get me started on greenwashing, too.

  • Judith

    Nothing makes me see red faster than a pink ribbon. See my earlier comment below!