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Chemical Cookware: A Chemical Used In Nonstick Cookware Continues To Prove Its Toxicity

By Jennifer McKinley

More evidence is mounting in the ongoing debate over perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). In a study conducted at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, there appears to be a correlation between PFOA and low birth weight in newborns. In February of 2007, ABC News reported that the Johns Hopkins researchers tested 300 newborn infants and examined their blood for their levels of exposure to PFOA and other fluorinated chemicals in relation to growth and development. Dr. Lynn Goldman, a head researcher in the independent study, concluded, “It appears that there is a relation between a higher level of exposure and lower birth weight, as well as the circumference of the head.”

PFOA, used in the production of Teflon and other nonstick surfaces, is found in candy bar wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, fast food packaging (including french fry and pizza boxes, bakery items, drink cups and paper plates), and a host of “stainresistant” products, including carpets. Other well-known brand names containing PFOA include Stainmaster, Scotchgard, SilverStone, Fluoron, Supra, Excalibur, Greblon, Xylon, DuraCoat, Resistal, Autograph and T-Fal, according to the book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things, by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie.

Although DuPont Corporation (which makes Teflon) has stated that PFOA is used only in the manufacturing process and should not be found in the final products, a Centers for Disease Control study showed that the chemical can be found in the bloodstream of 95 percent of American men, women and children. If PFOA is not in the final product, how has its chemical residue made it into the bloodstream of so many people?

The Environmental Protection Agency has found that the halflife of PFOA in the blood is approximately four years (meaning that it takes four years for the PFOA levels in the bloodstream to reduce by half ). In 2005, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board implicated PFOA as a cause of increased instances of cancer in the pancreas, liver, testes and mammary glands. There were also higher instances of miscarriage, weight loss, thyroid problems, weaker immune systems and low organ weights.

There is a growing community of scientists, including a research team at the University of Toronto, that believe the largest concentration of PFOA is not the manufacturing process of Teflon, but a cousin of Teflon called “telomers.” Telomers are also made by DuPont, and a select few other companies. They are used to make the stain- and grease-resistant coatings for fast-food containers, apparel and carpeting.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has reported that PFOA has been “found in wildlife from Italy, the U.S., Japan, Russia, Belgium, and Canada, and in places as remote as the Sand Island Wildlife Refuge in Midway Atoll.” EWG also reports that scientists have found PFOA in the eggs of the double-crested cormorant from Lake Winnipeg, in the blood of seals in the Caspian sea, and in a spinner dolphin off the Florida coast.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Morgantown, West Virginia, under the direction of John Meade, has completed a study that shows PFOA priming immune system response and causing an overreaction to allergens in mice. In the study, mice were given PFOA before exposure to an egg allergen. The mice produced more “allergen-specific antibodies and experienced more constriction of their airways than those exposed to the allergen alone.”

Robert Rickard, a science director at DuPont, has said that he did not believe that PFOA was likely to be a cause of allergyrelated health issues in humans. However, to date there have been no studies to examine this possibility.

Legal action and numerous lawsuits are currently pending against DuPont. If these findings are proven accurate, the results could have a major influence on the outcome of the court cases. It could also bring regulation from the federal government. Currently, there is none.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has urged DuPont to eliminate this toxin from their manufacturing process. So far, the elimination of PFOA has been strictly voluntary. PFOA is not regulated, and any restrictions on the use of the substance have resulted from court settlements without intervention by U.S. regulatory committees.

At this time, no permits are required from the EPA or state departments to use PFOA. DuPont has said that it would handle its own monitoring and provide reports with the results. The company claims to have already reduced PFOA emissions from manufacturing plants by 97 percent, but has never made a commitment to discontinue use of the chemical altogether. The EPA has already identified PFOA as a “likely” human carcinogen. DuPont maintains, regardless of the studies or research done, that the substance is not related to any adverse health effects and that all exposure and levels in humans fall within “normal range.” The fundamental question remains: Is any amount of PFOA in the body “normal”?

What can you do to protect yourself and your family?

Most of the items that are in direct contact with the nonstick coatings listed above are not healthy for the body to consume. If at all possible, avoid french fries, candy bars, pizza and microwave popcorn, where Teflon is commonly used in packaging or preparation.

Vacuuming any “stain-resistant” carpeting releases the chemical into the air to be circulated in your home.

Heating nonstick cookware to broiling temperatures (above 350°F) releases the PFOA into the air, and, according to some naturopaths, into your food—especially if there is a scratch in your nonstick cookware. You can prepare and store food more safely using glassware, stoneware and enamel-coated cast iron.

The fact that a potentially hazardous chemical is in so many products that we use daily may seem daunting. While DuPont remains passive regarding any PFOA research findings, those who are skeptical about its safety find vindication in every new study. If independent research continues to consistently show negative effects of PFOA, DuPont’s legal team may need more than a little Teflon from their science division. Sooner or later, something’s bound to stick.