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Teflon: Right now it's fatal to birds . . .
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Let me share some of the reports of bird fatalities: When a Teflon-lined oven was used to bake biscuits at 325 degrees Fahrenheit, an owner reported the death of his parrots. When four stovetop burners lined with Teflon drip pans were preheated for a meal, 14 birds died within15 minutes. And when Teflon-coated heat lamp bulbs were installed in chicken pens, half of the chicken population passed away within a few days.
With reports like these, it's a wonder anyone continues to use Teflon. Environmental Working Group (EWG) says that fumes from overheated Teflon are made up of four "extremely toxic" gases. These include PFIB, a chemical warfare agent, and MFA, described as a gas that "can kill people at low doses."
And you want to know what's really odd? Most of the fears about Teflon don't even concern PFIB and MFA. These bird-killing, corrosive gases have gotten very little notice. The worrywarts have focused instead on another chemical altogether: PFOA. PFOA is the one that's been investigated the most and linked to cancer and infertility.
Glad I skipped this hazard
As much as I enjoy easy cleanup, I've never gone in for Teflon nonstick coating on skillets, pots and pans. Even decades ago, the whole thing seemed suspicious to me. The stuff wears off as time goes by, and bare metal starts peeking through, even if you're careful to use those special pancake flippers.
So where do the chemicals go? Into your food, of course. Now that I've heard the dead bird stories, I realize they also go into the air. Hadn't thought of that before.
But it seems that few people shared my concerns. For years, millions of Americans have been using Teflon products without worry. But finally, in the past decade, some alarming health scares have come to light — and I don't mean just bird fatalities. It's been alleged that Teflon causes cancer, fertility problems, and other health hazards. So let's see. . .
Teflon is more than just a nonstick-cookware-coating. It's the brand name for the synthetic substance known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). I'll spare you too much chemical speak, but it's important to note that its uses go beyond the kitchen.
The product came to be in 1938 as an "accidental" invention by a chemist attempting to create a refrigerant. Since then, its non-reactive, low-friction properties have escalated its popularity in households across the globe. The chemical is used as a coating on pots, pans, wiper blades, curling irons, and many other convenient modern-day products. It's also used as fabric spray for stain-repellant carpet and clothing.
Fumes from the Teflon factory
Concerns about the long-term effects of Teflon became a major issue when the media revealed research relating to PFOA, a key component used in the production of PTFE. Results showed that laboratory rats exposed to PFOA developed major reproductive problems and liver tumors. Studies also showed the chemical could cause testicular, mammary, and pancreatic cancers.
Those who doubt these health studies — and of course DuPont, the manufacturer of Teflon -- argue that these findings aren't relevant to humans. Why not? Because the levels of PFOA in the average human are much lower than the levels injected into the lab animals.
But that just leads to another unsettling fact: trace amounts of PFOA are already found in at least 95% of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Plus, researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital found 99% of babies are born into the world with the toxin already transmitted to them through their mothers.
A handful of manufacturers of nonstick and waterproof products are guilty of releasing PFOA into the environment, but DuPont seems to be the blackest sheep of all — or at least they've received the most publicity. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) smacked the chemical company with a $16.5 million dollar fine for withholding 20 years worth of information revealing PFOA as a health risk to workers and the public.
The same year, a class action lawsuit was filed by nearby residents of the DuPont plant in Ohio and West Virginia. They sued on the grounds of water contamination and the higher-than-average amounts of PFOA in their bodies. DuPont paid the residents a $300 million settlement.
Some signs that PFOA may cause cancer
In the sixty years DuPont has been making Teflon, no human cancer has been publically linked to the chemical. One report claimed a connection between the birth of a deformed child and high traces of the chemical, but that was in 1981, and no other cases have been added. For people with higher-than-average PFOA levels, the health concern that rings true is problems with fertility in both men and women.
For now, the only studies that support PFOA as a cause of cancer are based on testing rats with high doses. You can take comfort from that if you wish — no doubt friends of industry will do so — but I'm still concerned about the low levels found in humans. After all, we're dealing with a toxin. Doctors — or somebody, for crying out loud — should monitor people with high traces of the chemical to give us a better understanding of the impact on human health.
Because PFOA is clearly harmful to rats and incredibly persistent in the environment, the EPA has noted "suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity, but not sufficient to assess human carcinogenic potential." In response to its possible harm, the EPA launched the 2010/2015 Stewardship Program, an initiative to get the eight major manufacturers that use PFOA to work toward eliminating the chemicals from emissions and products by 2015.
DuPont claims that PFOA is not in the finished version of Teflon products anyway. It's merely used at an earlier stage of the manufacturing process. Fair enough. But the Environmental Working Group (EWG) states there are trace amounts in finished Teflon products. Since 95% of Americans have PFOA in their blood, I think I'll side with EWG because it's clear that somehow — Dupont can feel free to tell me how — nearly all of us are being exposed to PFOA one way or another.
How you can get the "flu" from your stovetop
That said, the immediate concern regarding Teflon comes from the toxins found in consumer products. These products have cropped up in a huge number of American households, and the most immediate risk it imposes is known as the "Teflon flu."
In general, Teflon cookware is considered safe for cooking and baking, but when a pan reaches temperatures of about 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the material begins to deteriorate. At 660 degrees, the coating decomposes in a major way. Breathing the fumes from an overheated Teflon appliance causes flu-like symptoms: headache, chills, fever, tightness in the chest, and coughing.
In others words, it's not just bird respiratory systems that have a problem with Teflon fumes.
To give you some perspective on the levels at which Teflon could decompose, meat is usually fried at 400 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, but an empty heated pan can easily reach levels above the red zone — especially when heated on high. So if 450 degrees is a typical cooking temperature and 500 is unsafe, we're only looking at a 50-degree difference. Too close, in my opinion.
In most people, the flu-like symptoms show up a few hours after overheating Teflon, so many victims think they're in fact coming down with a flu virus. Symptoms vanish in a few hours to a couple of days, and the only known severe health problems have happened to people who already have respiratory illnesses. Notice that word "known" " I put it in italics for a reason.
What are the long-term problems associated with Teflon gas inhalation? I'd like to know. Considering that pet birds are keeling over dead, you'd think that our medical dictators would be curious.
But no research has been conducted regarding long-term effects, and DuPont likes to insist there are no long-term problems. It's almost universal in American industry that we don't study the long-term effects of anything. From soda and potato chips to the latest prescription drug, if a product doesn't cause you to get sick fast, it's considered safe.
If you're a frequent reader of my newsletters, you've probably read about how toxins can often be a cause of cancer. Inhalation of Teflon gases and particles seems like a health issue worth considering.
Or am I just overreacting?
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) ranked Teflon as one of "The Top Ten Unfounded Health Scares of 2004." But considering the evidence, is it really unfounded?
The EPA estimates the blood levels of affected lab rats was very high compared to the average amount of PFOA found in humans. So the ACSH argues the small amount in us is nothing to cause concern.
And what really gets them going is how the media mixed up the risks of PFOA with the risks of heating Teflon cookware. As noted above, these are two different issues. A 2003 ABC 20/20 report warned consumers that the risk of heating Teflon pans meant exposure to toxins that "can cause birth defects and several types of cancer."
It sounds like 20/20 assumed PFOA was the dangerous chemical in Teflon pans even though it's not an ingredient in the finished product and does not figure in the fumes that cause respiratory problems when Teflon cookware is overheated. Still, if Teflon pans release deadly toxins used in chemical warfare, then I think it's safe to infer the pans present some health danger to humans.
Lee Euler Publisher
Ross, Brian, Rhonda Schwartz & Maddy Sauer. "Can Non-Stick Make You Sick?" ABC News, 14 Nov. 2003.
2010/2015 PFOA Stewardship Program.
"PFCs: Global Contaminants: DuPont's Spin About PFOA." Environmental Working Group.
"Canaries in the Kitchen: Teflon Toxicosis: Teflon Offgas Studies." Environmental Working Group.
"Teflon labeled cancer risk."
"The Top Ten Unfounded Health Scares of 2004." American Council on Science and Health.
EPA Fines Teflon Maker DuPont for Chemical Cover-Up.
Dr. Mercola. "More Troubles with Toxicity from Non-Stick Cookware." 7 June 2005.
Nash, Holly, DDM. "Teflon Toxicity in Birds: Signs and Prevention."
Editor in Chief: Lee Euler Contributing Editors: Mindy Tyson McHorse, Carol Parks Webmaster: Holly Cornish Information Technology Advisor: Michelle Mato Fulfillment & Customer Service: Joe Ackerson and Cami Lemr
Health Disclaimer: The information provided above is not intended as personal medical advice or instructions. You should not take any action affecting your health without consulting a qualified health professional. The authors and publishers of the information above are not doctors or health-caregivers. The authors and publishers believe the information to be accurate but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. There is some risk associated with ANY cancer treatment, and the reader should not act on the information above unless he or she is willing to assume the full risk.
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