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‘Frack-for-the-cure’ breast-cancer awareness campaign offers latest example of corporate ‘pinkwashing’

Baker Hughes, an international oilfield services company, will distribute 1,000 pink-painted drill bits in the hopes that that “roughneck who cracks open that container learns a little more about” breast cancer. Really.

Baker Hughes, the Houston-based international oilfield services company, has announced it is distributing 1,000 pink-painted drill bits worldwide.
Baker Hughes

It’s October — Breast Cancer Awareness Month — so we find ourselves once again saturated with “pinkwashing” campaigns, corporate marketing efforts in which companies position themselves as leaders in the fight against breast cancer when they are actually selling products that promote the disease.

Dozens and dozens of companies engage in this cynical practice. In past years, for example, we’ve seen alcohol companies sell pink vodka, without mentioning, of course, that alcohol is generally considered a risk factor for breast cancer. And then there are the cosmetic companies that wrap their products in pink ribbons each October without acknowledging that the ingredients in many of those products are suspected of being carcinogenic.

Companies and organizations that jump on the pink-ribbon bandwagon during Breast Cancer Awareness Month always emphasize, of course, that they are donating proceeds from the sales of their “pink” merchandise “to support the fight against breast cancer.” But very little of the money spent on those products actually ends up being donated to cancer organizations, and even less goes to cancer research. Only 5 percent of the sales of  “pink” products sold by the National Football League (NFL) in 2012 went to the American Cancer Society, for example, and only 70 percent of that money was actually spent by the ACS on research, according to reporters for Business Insider.

In other words, for every $100 spent by the NFL fans, about $3.50 ended up going toward cancer research.

A new pinkwashing low

This year, however, we seem to have reached a new low in pinkwashing. Baker Hughes, the Houston-based international oilfield services company, has announced it is distributing 1,000 pink-painted drill bits worldwide as “a reminder of the importance of supporting research, treatment, screening, and education to help find cures for this disease, which claims a life every 60 seconds.”

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The bits, which weigh 85 to 260 pounds, are used in fracking for gas and oil.

According to the publication Fuel Fix, Baker Hughes is shipping the bits to drill sites around the world “in a pink-topped container containing information packets with breast health facts, including breast cancer risk factors and screening tips.”

The “hope,” the company told Fuel Fix, “is that the roughneck who cracks open that container learns a little more about the disease that affects 200,000 women a year.” 

Really? Really?

Can it get more ridiculous than that?

For, as Breast Cancer Action (BCA), the activist group that coined the term pinkwashing as part of its “Think Before You Pink”campaign, noted with considerable exasperation in an article published on its website earlier this week, “Over 700 chemicals [including formaldehye and benzene] are commonly used in the process of drilling and fracking for oil and gas. At least 25% of these chemicals increase our risk of cancer.”

And a study released in August found that some workers in the fracking industry had higher-than-recommended levels of benzene in their urine.

I doubt those “roughnecks” will find that information in those “pink-topped” containers.

An eager partner

But all this seems to be fine with Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the controversial breast cancer charity that Baker Hughes describes as its partner in its “Doing Our Bit for the Cure” pinkwashing effort (quickly dubbed “frack-for-the-cure” by critics). Baker Hughes will be giving Komen $100,000 later this month.

As I’ve pointed out here before, Komen has often acted questionably on issues that affect women’s health, including their breast health. In 2012, for example, Komen announced that it was not going to renew its longstanding partnership with Planned Parenthood, a decision that the organization quickly had to reverse due to a huge public outcry. More insidiously, Komen has tended to downplay findings linking environmental toxins to breast cancer — a stance that perhaps can be explained by its willingness to take funding from such companies as Coca-Cola, General Mills, 3M and Georgia Pacific (a subsidiary of the Koch Industries), all of which use suspected carcinogens in their products.

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Now, Komen is taking money from yet another company that is spewing potentially carcinogenic pollutants into the environment.

“With all the toxic chemicals Baker Hughes is pumping into the ground, we thought they didn’t care about women’s health. However, this partnership with Komen makes it clear where both organizations stand on this issue,” states BCA Executive Director Karuna Jaggar in the article posted on her organization’s webiste.

“These drill bits are painted a specially commissioned pink to exactly match Komen’s brand color,” the BCA article continues. “Baker Hughes will use these pink drill bits to create an underground path for their special toxic mix of fracking chemicals that have a high chance of seeping into groundwater supplies and poisoning all living things in the vicinity, including women’s bodies.”

“When future generations have to choose between safe drinking water and developing breast cancer, they can look back and thank Baker Hughes and Susan G. Komen,” Jaggar adds.

Baker Hughes will be handing over its $100,000 check to Komen founder and chair of global strategy Nancy Brinker on October 26 at  — yes! — an NFL game (Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Indianapolis Colts).

I’m sure there will be a lot of pink on the field and a lot of solemn talk from the game’s announcers about the importance of “fighting breast cancer.”

But no one will mention environmental toxins.

BCA has started an online petition that it intends to deliver to Brinker before the game. You’ll find it on their website.