By CINDY SUTTER
Scripps Howard News Service
April 15, 2006
That was a question that popped into a lot of people's minds in January after a news report that DuPont, the maker of Teflon, and the Environmental Protection Agency had reached an agreement to phase out production of a chemical used in the making of Teflon.
The chemical, a suspected carcinogen known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, also can be a byproduct of a variety of other products that are resistant to wrinkling, stains and grease, such as clothing, fabric protectants, pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags.
While one effect of the news was to make people wonder about their choice of cookware, a bigger impact was to bring to light concerns about PFOA, which can be found in small amounts in a wide variety of products, and its widespread presence in the environment.
DuPont says - and most scientists agree - that the PFOA is removed, except perhaps for trace levels, during the Teflon manufacturing process. However, there is a dispute over whether Teflon can produce toxic fumes in the kitchen.
DuPont says that the cookware would have to be heated to 600 degrees for it to break down, a temperature the company says is unlikely to be reached in a home kitchen. But tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, show that a Teflon pan reached 721 degrees when heated on high for five minutes. The group says DuPont studies show that the Teflon can emit toxins at 446 degrees. At 680, the pans release six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, two global pollutants and MFA, a chemical lethal to humans at low doses, the group claims. Most instructions, however, say to heat non-stick pans no higher than medium heat.
The EWG tests also warn that toxic fumes from heated Teflon can kill birds. DuPont acknowledges that the fumes can kill birds, but says fumes from cooking oil or butter heated in other pans can also kill birds.
The EPA stresses that it has no data to show that PFOAs get into humans through cookware. In fact, the agency does not know how the chemicals are spread. However, studies indicate that PFOAs are probably in the blood of nearly all Americans.
"They don't break down in the environment," says Bob Rountree, a Boulder, Colo., health consultant who is working on a book about toxic chemicals in breast milk. "Ninety percent of people test positive for it in their bloodstream," he says.
The EPA asked DuPont and other companies to reduce PFOA from emissions and product content by 95 percent no later than 2010, and to work toward eliminating PFOA no later than 2015. This year, DuPont also reached a $16.5 million settlement with the EPA for not reporting potential health hazards due to PFOA.
Rountree says the phaseout doesn't come soon enough.
"Where's the burden of proof here? (DuPont) is saying it's not toxic until proven otherwise."
Rountree says there are few options for consumers, since so many products either use PFOAs in production or create it as a byproduct.
One of the best options, he says, is to reduce what he calls the "toxic load" on your body by eliminating other chemicals that dissipate more quickly, such as pesticides in foods. And he suggests doing your best not to buy products such as microwave popcorn - cook it on the stove or in a popper, he advises - pizza packaged in boxes and coated paper plates, as well as treated fabrics.
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