Breast cancer giant Susan G. Komen has found its strangest bedfellow yet in one of the world's largest oilfield services corporations, Baker Hughes.
The two have teamed up for a second year to distribute 1,000 pink drill bits to oil fields worldwide. Each drill bit, which burrows thousands of feet underground to tap fossil fuel reservoirs, is "shipped to the drill site in a pink-topped container containing information packets with breast health facts, including breast cancer risk factors and screening tips," according to energy news site FuelFix.com.
These pink drill bits deliver not only barrels of oil, but also good PR and money: Baker Hughes gets to claim it cares about women's health, and Komen will receive a check from the Houston-based company for $100,000. The campaign has even come up with a cute tagline: "Doing their bit for a cure."
But this partnership creates something far more insidious — a profit cycle whereby Komen raises millions of dollars each year to cure a disease that its corporate partner could be helping cause.
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Baker Hughes' business includes hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process for extracting oil and gas using a mixture of water and chemicals, including known or possible carcinogens.
This is just the latest example of "pinkwashing" — when a company or organization claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink-ribbon product but at the same time manufactures or sells products that are linked to the disease. Pinkwashing publicity stunts serve one purpose: They generate public goodwill and profits for corporation and nonprofit alike.
Since Breast Cancer Action first coined the term pinkwashing, there's been no shortage of shocking examples. Car companies Fiat and Ford participated in pink-ribbon marketing in spite of the links between auto exhaust and an increased risk of the disease. KFC sold greasy, heart disease-causing "Buckets for the Cure" in the name of women's health, just a few years after being sued for suspected carcinogens in its food. Even Komen's own Promise Me perfume raised concerns for its chemical contents. All too often, Komen is receiving pinkwashed donations and providing cover to companies that are helping fuel an epidemic.
Pinkwashing has become a central component of the breast cancer industry: a web of relationships and financial arrangements between corporations that cause cancer, companies making billions off diagnosis and treatment, nonprofits seeking to support patients or even to cure cancer, and public relations agencies that divert attention from the root causes of disease.
The partnership with fracking company Baker Hughes is among the worst examples of Komen's pinkwashing so far.
More than 700 chemicals are used in drilling and fracking for oil and gas. In a study of about 350 of them, researchers found that up to half can cause health problems, including nervous, immune and cardiovascular symptoms. More than one-third can disrupt the hormone system. And a quarter of the chemicals, such as benzene and formaldehyde, increase the risk of cancer.
Chemicals used in the fracking process can contaminate underground aquifers and leech into our drinking water. This month, the Center for Biological Diversity revealed that California drinking water aquifers were polluted with billions of gallons of toxic wastewater contaminated with fracking fluid. And when the agricultural industry uses water polluted with fracking chemicals, whether for irrigation or livestock, our food and bodies are contaminated. Given that the fracking process lacks strong oversight, the threat of these poisons and pollutants contaminating the basic necessities of life — our food, air and water — is very real. Currently, more than 15 million people in the U.S. live within one mile of a fracking well that has been drilled since 2000. And a recent government study found oil field workers are exposed to a dangerous level of benzene, a proven human carcinogen.
Komen's ties to toxic industries fueling the breast cancer epidemic don't stop with their corporate funders. Board chair Linda Custard and her husband, William Custard, are executives in multimillion-dollar energy companies in Texas, including Dallas Production Inc., a privately held oil and gas operating company.
To truly work for women's health, Komen needs to cut ties with the fracking industry. The organization must end its partnership with Baker Hughes, divest its leadership from the toxic businesses fueling this epidemic and acknowledge the health harms of fracking.
The hard truth is that we cannot end the breast cancer epidemic by teaming up with corporations whose toxic practices are fueling it. In a video announcing its partnership with Komen, Baker Hughes declares it will do its part to end breast cancer. But the truth is, by poisoning our water, food and air, Baker Hughes is doing more to cause breast cancer than to cure it. And Komen, with its poisonous partnerships, is giving Baker Hughes — and many other companies — the perfect pink disguise.