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How We Can End the Sale of Cancer-Causing Products

It's time to put a stop to corporate pinkwashing.

In the early 1990s, Charlotte Haley, 68, was concerned about the rates of breast cancer in her family and her community. Her daughter, sister and grandmother were all diagnosed with breast cancer. When Haley learned that the National Cancer Institute allocated only five percent of its research funding to cancer prevention, she decided to take action. Haley began distributing peach-colored ribbons with cards that read, “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only five percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”

After her actions sparked national media attention, Self magazine and Estée Lauder approached Haley about a partnership. Haley dismissed them as too corporate, which led them to rebrand their effort. Their lawyers suggested they pick a different color ribbon — they chose pink.

“Gone was the peach cancer prevention ribbon, and in its place was the pink cancer awareness ribbon,” said Karuna Jaggar, the executive director of Breast Cancer Action, a national grassroots advocacy organization working to end the breast cancer epidemic.

Prior to the corporatization of the ribbon, a pharmaceutical corporation called AstraZeneca came up with the idea of a National Breast Cancer Awareness month. But while AstraZeneca sold cancer treatments on the one hand, it sold carcinogenic pesticides on the other.

“It was a perfect profit cycle,” Jaggar said.  

In 2002, after much frustration and concern about pink ribbon cause marketing, Breast Cancer Action launched the Think Before You Pink project. Its first campaign “Who’s Really Cleaning Up?” targeted companies whose pink ribbon products did more for their profits than the pink ribbon cause. The project eventually began shifting from a follow-the-money focus to the environmental causes of breast cancer.

Perhaps its most famous campaign was the “Yoplait: Put A Lid On It” movement, which led to General Mills, Yoplait’s manufacturer, and Dannon — both of which account for two-thirds of America’s dairy products — to put an end to rBGH in their products. The hormone rBGH, which was used to stimulate dairy cows to produce huge quantities of milk, was linked to breast cancer.

This year Think Before You Pink has taken a bit of a different approach to “Breast Cancer Industry Month.” The project’s campaign this year, called “Toxic Time Is Up,” calls for legislation to ban toxins in products that cause cancer and other health-related problems.

Jaggar said, “Looking at the persistence and the prevalence of pink ribbon cause marketing, looking at our track record of successfully raising public education and public outrage over pink ribbon products, we felt that the time was right to go straight to the source, and to end pinkwashing once and for all by eliminating these chemicals that are implicated in breast cancer and ensuring that no pink ribbon product can contain chemicals that can put us at risk for breast cancer and other health harms.” 

Currently, in the U.S., there are more than 80,000 chemicals in use, and only a minority of those — about 200 — have ever been safety tested. These chemicals infiltrate numerous cosmetics and products such as perfumes, moisturizers and gels. The Environmental Protection Agency has recalled just a handful of these chemicals.

“We currently have, in essence, an innocent until proven guilty chemical policy,” Jaggar said.

That’s because the law of the land concerning product safety is a weak 1976 law called the Toxic Substance Control Act. So instead of presuming chemicals are safe until found they aren’t, Toxic Time Is Up wants to shift the burden to industries, which would be required to demonstrate product safety. In addition, they are pushing for a system that would test chemicals in products currently on the market.

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