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

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

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.”

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.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by chuck holtman on 10/10/2014 - 11:29 am.

    Ha! Got you, Ms. Perry.

    This is from the Onion. For sure. I think. Isn’t it?

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 10/10/2014 - 11:37 am.


    With all the domestic abuse problems facing the NFL they are a huge supporter of breast cancer awareness?
    A recent article by a former GM of the Chicago Bears talks about how the NFL in the past buried domestic abuse issues.
    We all want a cure for breast cancer but don’t use it as another feel good marketing tool for organizations like the NFL.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/10/2014 - 11:54 am.

    Corporate good citizenship

    Corporations don’t exist to do good in the society. They exist to make money. Corporate citizenship is sometimes well-meaning, but almost never continues if, or when, that citizenship begins to have a negative effect on the corporate bottom line.

    While not always the case, it is too often the case that corporate “good citizenship” is little more than a cynical public relations ploy. This particular one deserves an award for being the most cynical. I would guess that we could count on one hand the number of “roughnecks” likely to unpack a new, pink, fracking drill bit who will stop to read the breast cancer material presumably packed with it.

    In short, I’m with Chuck Holtman. The folks at The Onion are probably jealous that they didn’t think of this first.

  4. Submitted by Melissa Hansen on 10/10/2014 - 12:11 pm.


    I am glad that people are aware of breast cancer and other diseases, but obviously this stuff gets out of hand.
    If you really want to support research, you can volunteer to participate in studies; many studies are unsuccessful due to lack of participants. You can also donate directly to foundations and research institutions.
    In Minnesota: http://studyfinder.umn.edu/
    Across the US: http://www.researchmatch.org

  5. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/13/2014 - 09:18 am.

    “Suspected Carcinogens”

    It’s one thing to point out that oil and the methods for obtaining it include known carcinogens at levels known to contribute to cancer. It’s quite another to implicate a handful of other companies for having products with “suspected carcinogens.” It’s clear that Ms. Perry is making her own news in some of her articles. I understand that these are opinion pieces, but there are some broad and unfounded suggestions and statements, lately. Alcohol /use/ (rather than just alcohol–not to be nitpicky, but you write publicly, so be correct) IS a risk factor for breast cancer. But it is dose dependent, and low levels of alcohol consumption have benefits that may outweigh the breast cancer risk. That is, alcohol may contribute to 4% of breast cancers in developed countries (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2562507/) but moderate alcohol consumption may reduce risk of coronary heart disease by as much as 25% (http://www.bmj.com/content/319/7224/1523?linkType=FULL&resid=319/7224/1523&journalCode=bmj). Heart disease and cancer (all cancer, not just breast) are neck and neck for killers of women (http://www.cdc.gov/women/lcod/2010/WomenRace_2010.pdf). Does this mean that alcohol companies are being evil for “pinkwashing” their products?

    As for the food companies mentioned (full disclosure, I work for one), the suggestive statements of their role regarding “suspected carcinogens” is nothing more than creating your own sensation. Everything around us, including ourselves, is made of chemicals. Each and every one of them has the potential to kill us…in the right mode and dose. It is a leap to suggest that the Komen for the Cure people are being “insidious” because they get money from corporations. Komen might not be the best place to send money if you want money to go toward a cure (or, more likely, multiple cures), but it is irresponsible to make conclusory (or even suggestive) statements about the relationship between those companies and the alleged insidiousness of Komen for the Cure without some good evidence. Perhaps I’m brainwashed, but the company I work for works hard to be part of the community, including several charitable causes. We are not out to get you.

    But, even if I’m brainwashed by my company (I’ve not been here all that long, so it’s unlikely), I do have a PhD in Cancer Biology. I agree that painting a drill bit pink for awareness is ridiculous and pandering. But I also know a little bit about cancer. I’ve long thought that the “awareness” campaign is ridiculous, mostly because it does little to help victims directly and little to fund our understanding of cancer in order to better treat and/or cure it. But I also believe that the unsupported witch hunt of every single “suspected carcinogen” is no more helpful than pinkwashing, and might even contribute to an unhealthy fear of everything.

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