Teflon Update: It’s Worse than We Thought
August 8th, 2012 by Holly Cornish
Two years ago, I wrote to let you know the fumes from Teflon, given off when a pan is heated, were killing people’s pet birds (that was Issue #49, if you want the details). As far as I’m concerned, if it causes a parakeet to keel over, I don’t want it in my life.
Now there’s more news about this bird-killing toxin that’s undoubtedly in your home — and in your bloodstream, too. It’s in the bloodstream of almost every single one of us.
PFOA is the ingredient used in Teflon that causes the problems. I’m afraid new findings have surfaced to support the health hazards of this modern-day “convenience.”
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Chemicals of “convenience” are literally everywhere
Let’s recap before I hit you with the latest unsettling revelations. Teflon itself was an “accidental” invention by a chemist in 1938. The fellow was trying to make a refrigerant and instead came up with the non-reactive, low-friction substance known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) — what we know as Teflon.
Since then, PTFE has been employed as a coating on pots, pans, wiper blades, curling irons, stain-resistant carpets, and even microwave popcorn bags — just to name a few chemical-laced modern-day conveniences.
The chemical PFOA is a key ingredient in Teflon (PTFE). PFOA, or perfluororctanoic acid (and also known as C8), is a carcinogen, is toxic to animals, and persists in the environment indefinitely.
At least 99% of the general population in the U.S. have traces of PFOA in their bloodstream (up from 95% a few years ago). Folks who work in chemical plants or live near chemical plants probably have much higher levels than everybody else.
We knew this was coming
We’ve known for a while that Teflon was a likely health offender. The fact that Teflon fumes kill birds was our first clue. For instance,
- 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.
Our next clue was the health concerns voiced by workers at the DuPont Washington Works plant in the Mid-Ohio Valley. DuPont paid out a $300 million settlement in response to a class action lawsuit from plant workers and those who live near the plant in Ohio and West Virginia, all alleging DuPont contaminated their drinking water with PFOA.
If a corporation settles a lawsuit one always suspects they were in the wrong, but you can’t be sure. There wasn’t a proven link between cancer and PFOA … until now.
No such thing as an “acceptable” toxic level
Because of the allegations in that West Virginia and Ohio region, a panel of public health scientists have been monitoring the long-term health of the community through epidemiologic and other data. The panel was approved by DuPont as part of the class action lawsuit over PFOA.
The evidence they’ve found is chilling. The low-but-constant levels of PFOA consumed by residents in their drinking water have upped the rates of kidney and testicular cancer. For kidney cancer, risk is up by a shocking 170 percent. Thyroid cancer may also be affected by PFOA.
That same panel of independent scientists found another hair-raising health link last year. Their findings showed a link between PFOA and preeclampsia (a condition during pregnancy that can have catastrophic consequences for both the mother and the fetus). And they recently found a link between PFOA and both thyroid disease and ulcerative colitis.
Olga V. Naidenko, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, said “Widespread pollution by PFOA should be a wake-up call that our chemical regulation system is severely broken.” She added, “It is particularly urgent for the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a legal limit for drinking water pollution by PFOA, which is currently unregulated and never should have come to market.”
I agree that this is a wake-up call. But I think the only acceptable “legal limit” is zero.
A global phase-out is our best bet for future health safety
Right now, there’s a voluntary pact between eight major U.S. companies, including DuPont, to “virtually” eliminate the use of PFOA by 2015. The pact was put together by the Environmental Protection Agency. The goal is to drastically reduce the shocking extent to which PFOA shows up everywhere (pizza boxes are another offender).
According to DuPont’s spokeswoman, Janet E. Smith, “DuPont has commercialized new alternatives that are made with short chain chemistry that cannot break down into PFOA.”
On the flip side, Leann Brown, press secretary for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), points out “Had DuPont done sufficient human safety testing before bringing this product into commerce, they would have found this chemical was unfit for commercial production and use.”
The American Cancer Society points out there is very little data about the ability of PFOA to cause cancer, but also states the major U.S. health agencies have not formally evaluated PFOA and its connection to cancer. And keep in mind, DuPont isn’t the only offender that’s been using this chemical, though it’s the only current American maker of PFOA. Loads of companies overseas continue to produce and use it.
There may not be any formal study results, but all signs point in that direction. If you ask me, it’s not worth waiting around for a bureaucratic process to tell us what we already know. Although sadly, this doesn’t help the fact that it’s probably already in your bloodstream. PFOA has even been found in the blood of marine life and Arctic polar bears.
All you can really do at this point is make an effort to avoid the stuff as much as possible. This means staying away from Teflon-coated cookware, or anything that’s heat-resistant or non-stick. Clothes are also possible offenders, so avoid buying anything labeled wrinkle-free, stain-resistant, or waterproof.
If you have a hankering for popcorn, here’s good news: You can pop ordinary kernels in your microwave in a simple, chemical-free, brown paper bag. In the meantime, I’ll be watching for updates from DuPont as it phases out the chemical. And I’ll be hoping someday for a global phase-out.
Lee Euler Publisher