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Next Year, Let's Skip Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Can the pink ribbon be saved from corporate cause marketing, and actually mean something for women's health?

Can the pink ribbon be saved from corporate cause marketing, and actually mean something for women's health?

I love autumn, in large part for the colors: orange-gold leaves, red apples, multi-colored squashes. In the past few years, though, it seems that pink has become the most prominent October hue. It shows up everywhere: NFL players’ chin guards, inflatable rafts for playing beer pong, buckets of KFC chicken, ads for cosmetics. Even the big diesel truck that delivers my home heating oil is painted an unmistakable pastel pink now synonymous with “breast cancer awareness.”

Companies and organizations put a lot of resources into “raising awareness.” And we shoppers want to show solidarity with women affected by breast cancer because we love them (or we are them), and we think that cancer sucks. But what are we aware of when we apply Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer promotional lipstick, or lob a ping-pong ball into our opponents’ beer cup? Are we aware that breast cancer is not necessarily inevitable for a certain number of women, as public discourse would lead us to believe? Or that pink-ribbon marketing can hugely increase sales for corporations which may donate only a fraction of sales to research, sometimes while actually using chemicals linked to cancer in their manufacturing?

Today, a woman in the United States has a one in eight chance of being diagnosed with the disease—a huge increase from my Grandmother’s generation, when about 1 in 20 women were diagnosed. Diagnostics have improved in the past few decades, thankfully, but that cannot fully account for the drastic increase in such a short time span. The question "why?" naturally follows. Cancer is complicated and can almost never be linked to one thing, but pink-ribbon campaigns are not encouraging this question. They usually stick to the partial explanation of genes, cigarettes, diet, and exercise—all of which should be discussed, but we shouldn’t stop there.

In the 50 years since my grandmother was my age, thousands of chemicals were put into commerce. Approximately 100,000 chemicals are on the market today, most of which have never been tested for long-term health effects. In the past 20 years, science has revealed that many chemicals in common consumer products like food-can linings, cosmetics, and yes, even in the plastics that may be used to make chin guards and beer pong rafts, are linked to cancer or hormone disruption (which can in turn lead to cancer and other serious health problems). And yet, most of companies that employ pink-ribbon marketing have not made public commitments to stop buying these chemicals, and make the switch to safer alternatives.

Six percent. That is the conservative estimate as to how many people succumb from cancers triggered by environmental exposures, which translates to more than 90 deaths in the U.S. each day. When, if, 90 Americans are killed in Afghanistan, or in a mine disaster, we talk about the individuals who are no longer with us, and about the effect on families and communities. Talk shows and dinner-table conversations turn to tragedy prevention and outrage. How can our soldiers lack protective gear? Why didn’t the company listen to the workers who flagged problems? Why didn’t they err on the side of caution? Well… what about the tragedy that is breast cancer? What about erring on the side of caution, and being protective?

Dr. Sandra Steingraber, often called the Rachel Carson of our time, urges us to take a “human rights approach” to cancer. She says that we need to recognize that when we allow chemicals that are linked to cancer into the environment—into a bottle of shampoo, into the plastic that becomes a baby bottle, into a waterway—we are consigning some number of people to death. The fact that thousands of harmful and untested chemicals are on the market right now, and that pinkwashing abounds this autumn, is very disturbing.

But the good news is that some cancers can actually be prevented if we fix this broken system. The place to start, in honor of all of those affected by breast cancer, is with the corporations marketing products with pink ribbons. These guys have an imperative to actually protect women’s health by eliminating chemicals and manufacturing practices linked to harm. And if their chemical policies aren’t clear, public, and precautionary, I won’t buy their stuff, and I’ll write pieces like this (which I hope you in turn will forward to everyone you know).

Together, we will end pinkwashing.

And then maybe we can take a break from covering everything in pink next fall? When I play beer pong on an inflatable raft, I want to take a break from being super “aware” in the first place. I want to relax and have fun, knowing that the government and companies doing their parts to prevent cancer.

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