New York Breast Cancer Network Rebukes a Perilous Pinkwashing Partnership Between Komen and Fracking

By Margaret Roberts, Laura Weinberg and Andi Gladstone of NYSBCN

The New York State Breast Cancer Network (NYSBCN) is the only network of community-based, survivor-driven, breast cancer organizations in New York. Collectively, our 22 member organizations reach over 100,000 New Yorkers each year with essential breast cancer support and information services. Many of our groups provide educational seminars on environmental connections to cancer, and in 2013 NYSBCN held an educational program on “Hydrofracking and Breast Cancer,” at the NY State Capitol in Albany.

pinkdrillIn early October, 2014 the Susan G. Komen for a Cure Foundation publicized their partnership with Baker Hughes, an oil and gas field services company, to raise awareness of breast cancer by producing and using pink drill bits at hydraulic fracturing sites.

Responses flooded the media, including social media and online news websites, with notable articles by breast cancer organizations that accused Komen and Baker Hughes of pink-washing, a term coined by Breast Cancer Action to describe ‘cause marketing’ by companies or organizations that use, produce or sell pink products while at the same time developing and selling products that are linked to the disease.

An article published on October 8, 2014, in International Business Times, “Anti-Cancer Susan G. Komen Foundation Accused of ‘Pinkwashing’ the Fracking Industry,” included a response by Komen that there is “no evidence connecting fracking and breast cancer.” This reply seems disingenuous since a Komen-sponsored 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine, Breast Cancer and the Environment: A Life Course Approach, states that scientific evidence suggests a possible increased risk of breast cancer from exposure to benzene, one of several carcinogenic chemicals released in fracking.

The Facts

Noted biologist Dr. Sandra Steingraber stated in her recent ECOWATCH article, (Pinkwashing: Fracking Company Teams Up With Susan G. Komen to ‘End Breast Cancer Forever’, October 2014) that the “best evidence we have for the benzene-breast cancer link comes from studies of young male workers exposed on the job. Male breast cancer is clearly linked to occupational exposure to benzene.”

Dr. Steingraber cites a recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control “that found dangerous levels of benzene in the urine of workers in the unconventional (aka fracking) oil and gas industry.” Bernard Goldstein, MD, toxicologist and former dean at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, explains that these workers are also at increased risk for leukemia, especially if their benzene levels are high.

The Institute of Medicine report further describes other exposures that evidence suggests increase the risk for breast cancer, such as “exposure to the chemicals ethylene oxide, or 1,3-butadiene, which can occur in some workplaces.” Ethylene oxide and 1,3 butadiene are also used or produced during the natural gas refining process, and have been detected in air surrounding shale drilling, production and distribution sites. The report explains, “Some environmental agents are at least biologically plausible hazards—that is, scientists can see a clear mechanism in animals by which the agents might cause breast cancer—but studies to assess the risk in humans are lacking or inadequate.” However, research has already revealed strong links between these toxic chemicals and blood and lymph cancers in humans.

A recent peer-reviewed, six-state study published on October 30, 2014 in the journal Environmental Health, concluded that oil and gas wells are spewing high concentrations of harmful carcinogens into the air surrounding drilling operations, corroborating reports of illnesses and health disorders near fracking sites. While slightly less than half of the air samples tested positive for toxic contamination, samples taken in five states near fracking sites contained eight highly toxic chemicals that far exceeded federal safety levels. Benzene was the most common, and was found to be in concentrations more than 35 to 777,000 times the federal safety limits, and up to 33 times the exposure someone might get while fueling a car at a gas station. Hydrogen sulfide levels were 90 to 60,000 times higher than normal levels, and formaldehyde levels were 30 to 240 times higher than normal, certainly enough to cause serious health disorders.

As reported in US News and World Report, Dr. David Carpenter, lead author of the study explained that “Cancer has a long latency, so you’re not seeing an elevation in cancer in these communities. But five, 10, 15 years from now elevation in cancer is almost certain to happen.”

Earlier this year, University of Missouri researchers showed “that natural gas drilling operations may result in elevated endocrine disruptor compound activity and that of 39 unique water samples, 89% exhibited estrogenic activity.” Endocrine disrupting chemicals can act like estrogen in our bodies, and have been associated with altered gene expression and the development of mammary tumors in laboratory animal models. Researchers agree that increased exposure to estrogen plays a key role in the development of breast cancer.

The fracking process requires excessive diesel truck traffic, about 1000 truck trips per individual well, traveling 24/7, spewing exhaust that contains high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Several studies have linked exposure to PAHs to breast cancer.

Radioactive substances are unearthed during the fracking process, and radioactive wastewater is either pumped back underground where it can possibly seep into fresh water sources, sits in open wastewater pits, or is used as “brine” to de-ice paved roads. Radiation is a known breast cancer risk factor, and is linked to other types of cancer as well.

Perhaps the Komen Foundation is unaware that researchers at the University of Colorado School of Public Health found higher cancer risks in people living within a half-mile of drilling and fracking operations than people living further away. Another study by researchers from Yale University and the University of Washington found that people who lived within one kilometer of a well had twice the health problems as those living 2 kilometers away. Many other studies and reports have directly linked fracking to respiratory illnesses, nose bleeds, headaches, cardiovascular disorders and other health ailments.

The Position of the New York State Breast Cancer Network

The New York State Breast Cancer Network is aware that there are not yet results of long-term studies that show definitive proof that fracking causes breast cancer, but we agree with Dr. Carpenter and other cancer researchers and physicians who know that it can take 5-20 years for a detectable breast cancer tumor to develop from the first cell abnormalities. Therefore, only long-term epidemiological studies can definitively determine how toxic exposures will affect breast cancer incidence and these studies of fracking do not yet exist. Should we wait a decade or two for certain proof of cancer causation, or take precaution now to save people’s lives?

As breast cancer survivors and activists we are painfully aware that substances such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and the pesticide DDT, once considered safe and widely used before long-term epidemiological studies were completed, have since been proven to significantly elevate breast cancer risk. We now see that many of the fracking chemicals, drilling and storage processes, and wastewater procedures, over time, are likely to fall into this equation.

Key Research on Breast Cancer Risk and Environmental Exposures

  • Endocrine Disruption/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences:
  • Estrogen and Androgen Receptor Activities of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals and Surface and Ground Water in a Drilling-Dense Region, Christopher D. Kassotis1, Donald E. Tillitt2, J. Wade Davis3, Annette M. Hormann1, and Susan C. Nagel1
  • Petralia SA, et al. Risk of premenopasual breast cancer in association with occupational exposure to PAH and benzene, Scand J Work Environ Health 1999; 25:215–221
  • Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project, Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon DNA adducts. Gammon MD1, Santella RM, Neugut AI, Eng SM, Teitelbaum SL, Paykin A, Levin B, Terry MB, Young TL, Wang LW, Wang Q, Britton JA, Wolff MS, Stellman SD, Hatch M, Kabat GC, Senie R,
  • Bonner, Han et al. Breast cancer risk and exposure in early life to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons using total suspended particulates as a proxy measure. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers Prev. 2005.
  • Radiation and Increased Cancer Risk: American Cancer Society:
  • Cohn, Wolff, et al. DDT and Breast Cancer in Young Women: New Data on the Significance of Age at Exposure, Environ Health Perspect. Oct 2007; 115(10): 1406–1414, NCI, NIH.
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