By Krystal Redman (KR) DrPH, MHA, (they/she), Breast Cancer Action Executive Director
Corporate giant and Post-it® note producer 3M recently pledged to phase out the use of PFAS, a potentially toxic class of chemicals also known as “forever chemicals,” by the end of 2025. Yeah right, we’ll believe it when we see it.
Breast Cancer Action was relentless when we took on 3M’s pink ribbon Post-its® with our 2019 Think Before You Pink campaign: Say Never to Forever Chemicals, and we were on the cutting edge of connecting the dots between PFAS and breast cancer, which is now more commonly acknowledged. Over 3,500 people took action with us in 2019 and demanded 3M stop producing toxic PFAS, and can now take pride in contributing to the corporation making this change. This is a huge win for breast cancer advocates, and now it’s our job to turn to what’s next.
Despite 3M’s decades-long and deceptive claims that they “can be safely made and used,” PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) have been linked to numerous health harms and diseases, including breast cancer, and have earned their ominous nickname because they do not naturally break down in the environment.
PFAS have been found in water supplies across the country, rainwater almost everywhere, and it is alarming that all people living in the United States likely have some amount of PFAS in their bloodstream. And due to myriad overlapping forms of environmental racism, including racist zoning practices and decades of racially biased urban planning practices, environmental exposures from chemicals like PFAS will disproportionately impact communities living with the furthest relationships to power, including BIPOC communities and those who are already under-resourced.
3M’s insistence on the safety of these hazardous chemicals underscores their desire to escape legal and financial culpability through this decision, without any real intention to protect public health. Additionally, and most importantly, it points to the continued need to watchdog this profit-driven conglomerate, which is our specialty.
In our 30+ years of activist, advocacy, and watchdog work, including historic wins like the removal of rBGH from about 67% of the US dairy market, we know that public statements and pledges are worthless if changes aren’t implemented.
Will 3M simply sidestep the issue of public safety through chemical substitution? It seems likely given their track record. Due to weak and often non-existent chemical regulation in the US, corporations can stay two steps ahead of regulatory agencies by simply tweaking the molecular structure of a toxin and moving on to yet another harmful chemical, while regulation lags and works to play catch-up.
To end this all too familiar chain of events of chemical introduction, evidence-based links to cancer, corporate denial and disinformation, weak regulatory oversight and catch-up, fees and penalties enforced without systemic change, and then the inevitable chemical substitution, we can stop this cycle at the source by implementing the precautionary principle.
The precautionary principle must be the foundation of chemical safety regulation. It states that no chemical should be allowed to enter the consumer market without proof that it is safe for human beings, rather than removing it from the market only after definitive proof of harm. This philosophy mirrors our own on how to truly address and end the breast cancer crisis by working to stop this disease before it starts by prioritizing prevention and reducing chemical exposures in our environment.
Regarding the issue of the contamination already inflicted on the environment, not only must 3M discontinue the use of these “forever chemicals,” they are responsible for the clean-up of their own mess. Too often, taxpayers are the ones that foot the bill for the egregious practices of corporate giants.
3M’s pledge to end PFAS production shows that profit-driven companies respond to public demand, when it impacts their bottom line. While we celebrate this win and the work of our allies and community who spoke out against 3M poisoning people and the planet, we stay vigilant.
We’ll continue to raise our collective voices to address the root causes of this disease toward the goal of health justice, and a world in which people and communities can thrive because they are healthy, liberated, and free from breast cancer.