Don't Drive For Me This October

It is mid-October. Outside my window leaves are turning red and golden; inside, my computer screen and television are awash in pink ribbons, on everything from vehicles to fracking drill bits. This can feel a bit like “pinkwashing,” a phrase coined by Breast Cancer Action, when awareness campaigns -- like Chevrolet’s “Who do you drive for?” -- seem to suggest that driving, not activism, is the right way to honor breast cancer patients and survivors. And it’s an established fact that driving can cause harmful air pollution, hurting our own health.

That is why Sierra Club’s Gender Equity program chooses to focus on cancer prevention. This year we are joining Breast Cancer Action to demand Ford Motor Company takes a meaningful step to reduce breast cancer risks by committing to electric cars and reducing automobile pollution.

Despite the proliferation of pink ribbons, we’ve made little progress in understanding why one in eight American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer over their lifetimes, a sharp increase since my own mother was born in the post-World War II baby boom. Eighty-five percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease, pointing to external or environmental factors as the culprit.

Since World War II more than 50,000 new industrial chemicals have been invented and brought onto the market with very little review. Dozens of chemicals added to plastics, food packaging, and consumer products have been shown to have hormone-like activity when they enter our bodies.

Rachel Carson cautioned in Silent Spring, “If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals, eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones -- we had better know something about their nature and their power.”

But unfortunately, decades later, we are still learning. The Carson-inspired research team at the Silent Spring Institute gathered a list of 216 chemicals that have been identified as causing breast tumors in laboratory animal studies, but noted that the majority of industrial chemicals in products and people have not been screened for their potential to cause cancer.

Rachel Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 50s, and in an era when doctors routinely withheld information about cancer diagnoses from their female patients. Her doctors waited six months before telling her that her that she had metastatic cancer. She spent her last years writing and testifying about the perils of pesticides, while hiding her illness from all but her closest companions.

While we’ve made major progress in ending the secrecy and shame that once surrounded the illness, we haven’t made the same strides to control exposures to toxic chemicals. And until we do, we are missing an important tool to address the cancer epidemic.

When Rachel Carson died at the age of 56, she left many of her assets to the Sierra Club, including the royalties on the future sales of Silent Spring. I like to think with that this gift she acknowledged the central role environmental activism plays in the struggle to protect our people and environment from toxic chemicals.

So this month I’ll be speaking out to “Put the Brakes on Breast Cancer,” and you can too. Join Breast Cancer Action in telling Ford reduce cancer-causing vehicle pollution and always remember to Think Before You Pink.