Curing or Causing? Komen Partners With Fracking Company

Roxanne Nelson

October 09, 2014

Is this the most extreme example of pinkwashing? A major fracking company painted some of its hydraulic drill bits pink as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month — but fracking relies on carcinogens like formaldehyde and benzene, critics point out.

This pinkwashing results from a partnership between the breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Houston-based Baker Hughes, one of the world's largest oilfield services companies. For the second consecutive year, Baker Hughes will donate $100,000 to the charity, which will be presented at a National Football League (NFL) "pink out" game later this month.

Barker Hughes painted 1000 drill bits pink at its manufacturing facility, and shipped them to customers in pink-topped containers along with information about breast health, including breast cancer risk factors and screening tips.

Their slogan is "doing our 'bit' for the cure."

The partnership has created quite a media storm and ignited the wrath of at least 2 advocacy groups. In a scathing press release, Breast Cancer Action (BCA) has "thanked" Susan G. Komen for partnering with Baker Hughes, "on the most ludicrous piece of pink sh*t they've seen all year."

This partnership, they say, is the most egregious example of pinkwashing they've ever seen. BCA also "heartily lauded Komen and Baker Hughes for doing their bit to increase women's risk of breast cancer with their toxic fracking chemicals." It makes for an ingenious pinkwashing profit cycle, whereby Baker Hughes helps fuel breast cancer while Komen raises millions of dollars to try to cure it.

"With all the toxic chemicals Baker Hughes is pumping into the ground, we thought they didn't care about women's health," said Karuna Jaggar, executive director of BCA. "However, this partnership with Komen makes it clear where both organizations stand on this issue."

"I honestly thought I had seen and heard it all," Jeanne Rizzo, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund, said in a statement. "To quote Lily Tomlin, 'no matter how cynical you get, it's impossible to keep up.' October's pink ribbon frenzy about Baker Hughes' pink drill bits and its $100,000 contribution to be presented to Susan G. Komen at an NFL pink out game has made it clear that deeply hypocritical marketing around breast cancer awareness has not yet hit bottom."

A Pink Fracking Drill Head

Cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber, PhD, who is an expert in environmental factors that contribute to reproductive health problems and environmental links to cancer, was even more sarcastic and biting in her comments. In her essay published in EcoWatch, she noted that "Susan G. Komen hands out pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness, and Baker Hughes fracks. So, there you have it: a pink, fracking, drill head."

In particular, she poked fun at the "breast cancer awareness packets" that are being sent with the drill heads. "And exactly whose breast cancer awareness quotient will be bolstered out there on the well pad? Inside the trailers and the trucks? Down on the drilling floor? Up on the derrick?"

"The hope is that the roughneck who cracks open that container learns a little more about the disease that afflicts 200,000 women per year," she writes.

Dr Steingraber points out that dangerous levels of benzene have been found in the urine of workers in the "unconventional" oil and gas industry, but the inserts fail to mention that.

In a recent study, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health measured the chemical exposure of workers who monitor flowback fluid at well sites in Colorado and Wyoming. It was determined that "workers gauging tanks can be exposed to higher than recommended levels of benzene." In a number of cases, benzene exposures were above safe levels.

Benzene metabolites found in a worker's urine indicate some level of exposure during the work shift, which is a concern because benzene is a known carcinogen, according to the Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program.

"Pink ribbons and donations to 'cure' breast cancer are a deeply cynical response by companies like Baker Hughes, whose workers are exposed to a breast-cancer-causing chemical — benzene — on the job," said Rizzo. In fact, "studies have found workplace exposures to benzene are linked to male breast cancer."

Data Suggest Links to Cancer

Fracking is a highly controversial process of injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale rocks and release natural gas. Proponents point to the economic benefits of readily accessible hydrocarbons, whereas opponents cite as concerns the contamination of ground water, depletion of fresh water, degradation of the air quality, triggering of earthquakes, noise pollution, surface pollution, and risks to human health.

"Komen has been notably absent from all discussions about fracking and breast cancer, but with these pink drill bits they are thrusting the issue onto the national stage," Jaggar said. "Now people will learn how fracking relies on carcinogens like formaldehyde and benzene. Personally, I love a good dose of benzene with my pink ribbon."

The partnership "grew from Baker Hughes' involvement in our Houston Race for the Cure," and the "the issue is personal to them and their employees," a spokesperson for the Komen Foundation told the International Business Times. She added that "the evidence to this point does not establish a connection between fracking and breast cancer."

Although there is no conclusive evidence that fracking causes breast cancer, many of the chemicals used in fracking, such as benzene, acrylamide, formaldehyde, and ethylene oxide, are listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as human carcinogens. Other chemicals used in the process, such as toluene, bisphenol A, and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), are known endocrine-disruptors with strong links to breast cancer risk.

A 2011 study from the Institute of Medicine showed a possible link between an increased risk for breast cancer and exposure to benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and ethylene oxide.

An earlier study showed that 216 synthetic chemicals cause mammary gland tumors in animals and might be implicated in human breast cancer (Cancer. 2007;109[12 Suppl]:2667-2667).

Ironically, both studies were sponsored by Susan G. Komen.

Pinkwash Backlash

This is not the first time Komen has faced a sharp backlash over their campaigns to raise awareness. The organization has promoted a number of highly controversial products in the name of breast health.

In 2010, Komen launched "pink buckets for the cure" in collaboration with the KFC fast-food franchise, as reported by Medscape Medical News. At that time, the BCA noted that this was a particularly "tasteless" campaign, considering that high-fat fast foods lead to obesity, and obesity is a known risk factor for all cancers, not only breast cancer."

In 2012, Komen ended their partnership with TPR Holdings to produce Promise Me perfume after BCA reported that it contained chemicals not listed in the ingredients — galaxolide, a hormone disrupter, and toluene, a potent neurotoxicant that is banned by the International Fragrance Association.

A partnership with Yoplait yogurt provoked controversy on 2 levels. First, the company promised to give 10 cents to Komen for every specially marked pink lid that was sent in, but consumers had to spend nearly 4 times that on postage just to mail it. Second, Yoplait products are made from milk produced with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). The hormone has been banned in many countries and research suggests that a number of health concerns, including breast cancer, are associated with the consumption of dairy products from cows treated with rBGH. The company has since removed rBGH from its products.

Pink Pathway and Pink Out Game

Martin Craighead, chair and CEO of Baker Hughes, will present a check to Nancy G. Brinker, chair of global strategy and founder of Susan G. Komen, just before the final Pittsburgh Steelers NFL pink out game on October 26 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

"The research, education, and lifesaving community programs funded by Susan  G. Komen over the past 30 years have made a significant impact in the fight against breast cancer, and we are privileged to sponsor such important efforts," Craighead said in a statement. "As someone who has been impacted by this life-altering disease, I understand the importance of Komen's ongoing research, education, support services, and global programs, not only to those fighting the disease, but also to their loved ones, friends, and colleagues."

The Breast Cancer Fund and BCA, however, have not been swayed by the oil company's statement.

"Is Baker Hughes doing anything to protect its workers and communities that live near fracking sites from breast cancer chemicals?" Rizzo asked. No, "nothing more than making a contribution to Komen in front of a TV audience," she reported.

"Companies that swathe their brands in pink, claiming to care about breast cancer while producing or selling products that expose people to chemicals linked to the disease, are doing untold damage to efforts to prevent breast cancer," she added.

BCA points out that the drill bits are painted a shade that exactly matches Komen's brand color.

"Baker Hughes will then use these pink drill bits to create an underground path for their 'special' toxic mix of fracking chemicals that have a good chance of seeping into groundwater supplies and poisoning all living things in the vicinity, including women's bodies," a BCA press release reads.

"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 added.


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