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Financial conflicts of interest raise questions about Susan G. Komen’s downplaying of BPA-breast cancer link

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure website statements have tended to downplay or even deny any science suggesting a possible link between BPA and breast cancer.
The Susan G. Komen for the Cure website statements have tended to downplay or even deny any science suggesting a possible link between BPA and breast cancer.

Amy Silverstein (“Sick Girl”) published an interesting article on the Mother Jones website Monday about the reluctance of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the largest and probably best-known (not to mention best-funded) breast-cancer organization in the world, to acknowledge the growing amount of research linking the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) with breast cancer.

Used to make certain plastics and resins, BPA is commonly found in the packaging of foods and other products. It’s also recognized by scientists as an endocrine disruptor that mimics the effects of estrogen in the body.

As Silverstein documents in her article, Komen’s website statements have tended to downplay or even deny any science suggesting a possible link between BPA and breast cancer:

In April 2010 Komen posted an online statement saying that BPA had been “deemed safe.” And a more recent statement on Komen’s website about BPA, from February 2011, begins, “Links between plastics and cancer are often reported by the media and in email hoaxes.” Komen acknowledges in its older statement that the Food and Drug Administration is doing more studies on BPA, but also says that there is currently “no evidence to suggest a link between BPA and risk of breast cancer.”

These statements by Komen are “astounding,” according to Frederick vom Saal, a University of Missouri biology professor and BPA expert contacted by Silverstein. They are “at best, misleading, and at worst, demonstrating really significant ignorance by whoever at the Komen Foundation wrote that,” he said.

And here’s why (as summarized by Silverstein):

The United States’ President’s Cancer Panel concluded in 2010 that “more than 130 studies have linked BPA to breast cancer, obesity, and other health problems.” A number of studies have found that the chemical causes breast cancer in lab animals. In human cell cultures, BPA has caused breast cancer cells to proliferate and has also reduced the effectiveness of chemotherapy. In September a study by the California Pacific Medical Center found that BPA even made healthy breast cells behave like cancer cells and decreased the effectiveness of yet another breast cancer drug.

Following the money
Could Komen’s downplaying of the growing evidence suggesting a link between BPA and breast cancer have anything to do with the generous donations that Komen receives from private companies that use that chemical in their products?

“I want to be very clear,” Komen President Elizabeth Thompson told Silverstein. “We are not influenced at all by any subpart of any one of our funders.”

And yet, notes Silverstein,

[t]he list of Komen sponsors that use BPA include the Coca-Cola Bottling Company (which says BPA is safe, but that it is nonetheless looking for alternatives for its canned soda) and General Mills, which still uses the chemical in most canned foods but did recently introduce BPA-free organic tomato cans. Another sponsor is Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of famously anti-regulation Koch Industries and major manufacturer of epoxy resins that contain BPA.
Another manufacturing company, 3M, maker of Scotch Tape, has donated more than $1 million since 2007 and is a member of the American Chemistry Council, a powerful trade group that argues that BPA is safe. [The ACC actually quotes Komen’s “safe” statements about BPA on its website.] Komen also has a partnership with DS Waters, which delivers the type of water bottle cooler that you’re likely to find in an office setting. The bottles get a pink cap for the Komen partnership, but Komen doesn’t mention that those pink-topped bottles are made from polycarbonate plastic that contains BPA.

Willful ignorance?
Komen has funded some BPA research, but it’s a very small portion of its overall funding pool, Silverstein reports. The $55 million in grants awarded by the organization in 2011 included a single $450,000 study on BPA.

Nor does Komen seem to pay attention to the findings from the environmental toxin research it does fund. In 2007, reports Silverstein, Komen funded a review of studies on environmental toxins and breast cancer, but the results of that review did not, apparently, persuade the organization to stop its online dismissals of any possible link between those toxins and the disease — much to the consternation of at least one of the review’s authors.

Julia G. Brody, a breast-cancer researcher and executive director of the Silent Spring Institute, which conducted the review, has twice written to Komen about those statements. “I felt a particular obligation to bring these issues to Komen’s attention because the information on the website conflicts in various ways with the findings of the science review that we conducted with Komen funding,” she told Silverstein.

You can read Silverstein’s article on the Mother Jones website.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 10/05/2011 - 02:09 pm.

    Great post.

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