Pinkwashing Post-its: 3M and the PFAS Link to Breast Cancer

Karuna Jaggar
Oct 30 · 4 min read

by Karuna Jaggar, Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action, and Ken Cook, President of Environmental Working Group

Nearly 30 years after the first pink ribbon products for breast cancer awareness hit the shelves, everyone now knows that pink ribbons stand for breast cancer. Virtually everyone is aware of the disease.

But despite all those pink ribbons, pink ribbon products, and pink ribbon purchases, the number of people diagnosed with breast cancer continues to climb, and the number who die from it has changed little. In 1992, the year the pink ribbons were introduced, a total of 43,063 women in the U.S. died from breast cancer. This year an estimated 42,260 people will die from the disease.

The failures of the mainstream awareness movement, including to deliver on its promises to save lives, have fueled growing frustration at pink ribbon promotions. Companies make billions by capitalizing on public concern about breast cancer. Putting a pink ribbon on a product increases sales. And corporate claims of social responsibility help build brand loyalty.

Not every pink ribbon product is hypocritical. Some are harmless. And others are absurd. Pink ribbon portable restrooms?! Compared to the pink fracking drill bit, or KFC’s Buckets for a Cure, 3M’s Post-its may seem innocuous. But despite 3M’s slick marketing, the truth is it is contributing to the risk of the very disease it professes to care about.

We call that pinkwashing, and we deserve better from companies that claim to care about breast cancer.

Research shows that everyone in the U.S. is exposed to chemicals that may increase the risk of breast cancer and other cancers. Many of these chemicals are in our air, water, food and everyday products, and too often we can’t avoid or eliminate these personal exposures. Among them are the toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS. By altering the body’s hormone balance, suppressing the immune system, and changing the structure of the breast, PFAS may increase the risk of breast cancer.

Known for their extreme persistence, PFAS are often called “forever chemicals,” because they do not naturally break down over time. There is no way to avoid exposure to PFAS, and at least 98 percent of Americans have at least one PFAS chemical in their body. Experts have estimated that up to 110 million Americans may be drinking water containing PFAS.

Even low levels of PFAS can affect the development of the breasts and the ability to breastfeed. Some studies show that PFAS may change the internal “architecture” of breasts, increase the growth of breast cancer cells, and change the timing of breast development among girls.

A review of the bloodwork and medical records of 70,000 people drinking contaminated water linked PFAS to an elevated cancer risk. More recent reviews by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raise new concerns about the connection between PFAS and cancer. And it was the chemical industry’s own secret studies, unearthed through years of litigation, that first warned that PFAS could cause tumors, lesions, and other toxic effects.

Despite this, 3M aggressively promoted PFAS. The company first began making it in the 1940s and first knew of its health risks as early as the 1960s. When previous generations of PFAS chemicals were taken off the market due to health and safety concerns, 3M developed newer PFAS chemicals that they portrayed as being safer. In reality, the newer version pose many of the same risks. Now 3M has launched a PR campaign that brazenly twists the science in order to defend the safety of PFAS. A 3M scientist even testified before Congress that when it comes to PFAS, “there’s no cause and effect for adverse human health effects.”

No wonder 3M has resorted to pink ribbon Post-its and pink stethoscopes to “support the cause and join an inspiring community.”

But we deserve more than empty pinkwashing. And when we come together, we can push back on companies that try to hide behind pink ribbons. We must hold polluting corporations such as 3M accountable for the harmful effects of chemicals they have produced and demand that they show us that they care about breast cancer by taking the necessary steps to ensure that they aren’t fueling the breast cancer epidemic.

We’re calling on 3M to end the production, use and sale of toxic PFAS — because any company that truly cares about breast cancer will make sure it doesn’t contribute to the epidemic by increasing our risk of the disease.

Breast Cancer Action is an education and activist organization working for health justice for people living with and at risk for breast cancer. Learn more about the Say Never to Forever Chemicals campaign calling on 3M to stop developing, using, and selling toxic PFAS — and take action today.

The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment.