By Jayla Burton
Many companies, like 3M, use pink ribbon promotions to distract from PR problems and convey an image of corporate responsibility. In 3M’s case, the company has been fending off health concerns – and a growing number of lawsuits – triggered by compounds called PFAS. PFAS are a large and ever expanding class of highly fluorinated synthetic chemicals used to repel oil and water. They are known for their extreme persistence, which is why they are called forever chemicals.
3M has long tried to position itself as less blameworthy than DuPont, which used PFAS in many of its products including Teflon. But 3M is responsible for the development of the first most widely used PFAS, and continues to make, use, and sell them long after they knew about the health risks. Nearly 70 years ago, 3M pioneered the use of PFOS and PFOA, two types of long-chain PFAS that have been voluntarily phased out due to the health risks they pose. The company built its fortunes on the development, manufacture, and sale of PFAS, growing to a Fortune 500 corporation with $120 billion in annual sales. These forever chemicals are linked to numerous adverse health outcomes, and may increase the risk of breast cancer.
Why should we care about a few pink ribbon Post-its? And should I stop using Post-it notes altogether?
At first, 3M’s pink ribbon Post-it notes don’t stand out in the crowded field of pink and beribboned products on display everywhere during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Sometimes pinkwashing is immediately obvious, but 3M, a behemoth company with a global reach, likes to fly under the radar — and has successfully done so for years. It’s no surprise, then, that its pinkwashing seems innocent: innocuous pink-ribbon Post-its and pink stethoscopes are the company’s understated tribute to Breast Cancer Awareness. Meanwhile, 3M has been producing and peddling dangerous chemical compounds that have been linked to a host of health concerns – and may cause breast cancer.
If the links between PFAS and an increased risk of breast cancer weren’t bad enough, 3M has been a repeat pinkwashing offender. For decades, it’s been their corporate strategy to cover up truly egregious business practices to distract and deny the harms of PFAS.
One of our Think Before You Pink endorsing partners, the Indigenous People’s Task Force located in Minnesota, has taken steps to ban all 3M products from their workspace. This is in response to the health consequences of 3M’s products and practices, that include water contamination and a total disregard for the safety of local communities. This organization has taken a bold stand and their story is only one of many that inspired me to take action and email 3M’s executives. I used this simple online tool to tell 3M’s CEO and Senior Vice President of Business Development to stop producing, using, and selling toxic chemicals.
What is the history behind 3M’s deceptions and denial of the harms of PFAS? Are they continuing to defend this toxic class of chemicals?
3M prides itself on being a good corporate citizen and claims their products “improve lives around the world every day.” But the company has known for decades that PFAS are dangerous, and has worked hard to conceal that information. By the 1970s, internal 3M documents revealed that PFOA and PFOS were toxic. In 1989, a 3M internal study found elevated cancer rates among PFAS workers. Another internal study conducted in 1990 found exposure to PFOA increased the risk of testicular cancer. During this time, Geary Olsen, a 3M epidemiologist who has been accused of distorting and suppressing scientific evidence regarding PFAS, found that PFOA and PFAS accumulated in humans and altered cholesterol levels in animals. He and many others helped 3M covered up this valuable information for years.
Despite the growing body of evidence linking PFAS to serious health harms, the company said nothing and continued to push out products with PFAS, which in turn contaminated the air, soil, and drinking water of communities around the country. It wasn’t until 2000, when 3M was forced to turn over hundreds of documents to the Environmental Protection Agency, that the company’s own studies showing PFAS health risks came to light.
Amid the growing drumbeat of evidence linking PFAS to cancer and other devastating illnesses, 3M continues to defend its toxic legacy. At a recent Congressional hearing a 3M representative insisted that PFAS don’t pose a health risk – even after they were confronted with data showing sky-high levels at military bases around the country. “The weight of scientific evidence has not established that PFOS, PFOA, or other PFAS cause adverse human health effects,” Denise Rutherford, 3M Senior Vice President blandly stated. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz, who was questioning her, seemed appalled by Rutherford’s statement, which, in fact, contradicts the company’s own scientists — and many of its own actions.
If PFAS are “safe”, why did 3M move female childbearing workers from PFAS work sites? If PFAS are “safe”, why did 3M agree to phase PFOA and PFOS out? If PFAS are “safe”, why are there more cases of cancer in communities with high levels of PFAS water contamination?
The company clearly knows that PFAS aren’t safe, and is working hard to avoid lawsuits and public condemnation. They recently unveiled a PFAS website, claiming “evidence does not show that PFOS or PFOA causes harm to the environment or people”. Marketing pink ribbon products is another PR tactic 3M uses to undermine its increasingly widespread reputation as a corporate polluter.
How far has 3M gone to distract consumers and the public from the truth about their harmful chemicals? What other pink ribbon promotions has 3M done to cover up their bad acting?
For decades, 3M has exploited our concerns about breast cancer while actually increasing the risk of breast cancer by exposing us to PFAS. 3M has developed multiple initiatives to raise breast cancer awareness. In 2004, 3M began their plan for distraction by creating pink ribbon Post-it Notes as a “reminder for a good cause”. They encouraged people to purchase the Post-it notes to show they were ‘Sticking Up’ for breast cancer research. They attempted to build the World’s Largest Pink Ribbon out of 75,000 Pink Post-it Super Sticky Notes on a billboard in New York City’s Times Square. As if thousands of sticky notes can cover up all the toxic chemicals that affect millions of people living with or at risk of breast cancer!
In 2015, 3M launched its Pink Hard Hat campaign, which encouraged electrical workers across the country to stand up for brave women affected by breast cancer. And 3M is currently “fighting to find cures” by selling Littman® Stethoscopes, and donating only $5 of proceeds from each stethoscope to the American Cancer Society. It’s unbelievable that a $120 billion multinational corporation has only $5 per sale to spare.
Why should you take action and email 3M executives?
If 3M really cares about breast cancer, they should stop covering up their actions with pink ribbon products, and instead make a real difference by ending the development, production, and sale of PFAS. Since we launched the campaign, we’ve been joined by 25 breast cancer, public health, and environmental justice organizations who care about the harms of PFAS and breast cancer. This campaign is about coming together to stand up to a corporate giant that has for years denied harm, delayed regulation, and tried to distract us from dangerous chemicals that put us all at risk.
Since targeting 3M, I’ve noticed their products everywhere. In fact, I challenge you to look around and see how many 3M products there are in your home and office. Aside from Post-it Notes, Scotch Gard® and Scotch Tape®, 3M makes cleaning products, medical supplies, industrial supplies, and even screen protectors. And along with 3M products, their toxic PFAS are everywhere: in our air, soil, water, in our bodies — and even in polar bears who never have and never will use 3M products!
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I am telling 3M how their PFAS make me feel and demanding that they Say Never to Forever Chemicals. I never asked to be exposed to these toxic chemicals and after years of deceit, it is time for 3M to break the forever cycle. Join me and take action by sending a pre-drafted email to 3M executives telling them to stop pinkwashing and stop producing, using, and selling PFAS!