The trouble with Teflon

Farm Bill tension had me sequestered in the kitchen these past few evenings. With most things house-related, I find frustration to be an excellent source of motivation; I'm happy to report that thanks to the Farm Bill, the floors have been scrubbed, the cast-iron pan seasoned, and the last batch of citrus marmalade put up for the year.

In my kitchen, the pots and pans are nothing to write home about. As much as I'm jonesing for a Le Creuset set, it's not going to happen unless I win the lottery. None of them, however, are non-stick; a few years ago, after learning that Teflon might release toxic chemicals into food as it was cooking, we replaced all our old non-stick pans to minimize exposure.

A study released by scientists late last week suggests that in the belly of the beast — Parkersberg, WV, the site of the DuPont plant where Teflon is manufactured — folks are not so lucky. This is a whole new take on the chemical-intensive food system: Workers and residents have spent years absorbing the chemicals used to make non-stick coating so that consumers can flip a fish-stick without leaving half of it on the pan. I thought I'd use the opportunity of the study's release to learn more about this longstanding case of culinary injustice.

When non-stick sticks around

The study, conducted by researchers at West Virginia University, grew out of a class-action lawsuit against DuPont that was settled in 2002. Part of the $107.5 million that DuPont paid for allegedly dumping chemicals in drinking water supplies around Parkersberg was earmarked for studies to determine how the chemicals had affected residents. After looking at blood samples from 69,000 people living in the area, WVU scientists found that a chemical called PFOA was present in their blood at levels five times higher than the median level for the general U.S. population; in one water district across the Ohio River from Parkersberg, residents' PFOA levels were over 25 times the U.S. median. One resident's blood contained PFOA at levels nearly 4,500 times the median. PFOA, also known as C8, is used to make Teflon as well as oil-resistant paper to line pizza boxes and Chinese-food takeout cartons, and other non-stick products.

The study made the news because it included the largest group of residents ever to be tested for PFOA exposure. But the main finding — that PFOA gets in people's bodies and stays there — is not a new revelation. In fact, the companies that manufacture Teflon and related products (including Scotchguard, made by chemical giant 3M) have known about PFOA's sticky tendency for a good long time. The Globe and Mail reports that 3M found the chemical in workers' bodies as early as 1979, though the company chose not to publicize that information at the time. Wonder why?

3M did, however, continue to test workers over time and monitor them for adverse health effects. How generous of the company to take responsibility for the presence of chemicals in its workers' bloodstreams by using them as human subjects in its own private study! Although 3M has since claimed that it found "no health effects in our employee population," studies that it conducted on rats found that while adult rats weren't affected by large doses of the chemicals, their offspring tended to die in massive numbers shortly after birth. That means that the children of DuPont and 3M workers, not the workers themselves, are the true canaries in the coal mine.

When non-stick makes you sick

The study released last week also included some new and disturbing findings about the health effects of PFOA. Residents living near the DuPont plant who had high levels of PFOA in their bloodstreams tended to have lower levels of a protein that helps the body fight off bacteria and viruses. They also had reduced thyroid function. In kids, high levels of PFOA were associated with high cholesterol levels. Researchers fear this could lead to obesity and heart disease risk later in life … as if exposure to the rest of our dysfunctional food system wasn't bad enough.

These impacts are scary not just because of what they've done to the workers and residents studied, but because PFOA appears to be one of the most "persistent" chemicals -- chemicals that do not break down into less-harmful compounds over time -- that scientists have come across. That means that the impacts they're seeing now could be just the beginning. Here's the Globe and Mail again:

In an ironic turn for chemicals that are used to make non-stick products... PFOA [and PFOS, a related chemical] have been found to have an extreme affinity to stick to living things and, once absorbed, are incredibly hard to shed, often taking decades to be excreted. “We've never seen them degrade under any relevant environmental conditions,” said Scott Mabury, a chemistry professor at the University of Toronto. “I often say they redefine persistence as we know it.”

Awesome.

It was not until May of 2000, 21 years after it first began testing workers, that 3M announced it was ceasing the use of PFOA. The reason? New tests had found it in the blood of people around the globe, including in places far from manufacturing facilities. Here's 3M exec Charles Reich in the Washington Post the day after the recall: "The surprise wasn't that it was in our workers — that's something we've known for some time. It was a complete surprise that it was in the blood bank supplies" of the U.S., Japan, Europe, and China. Double awesome. And by the way, by "awesome," I mean "mindblowingly terrifying."

Sticking it to the man

DuPont has pledged to phase out the use of PFOA as well, but not until 2015. By that point, Parkersberg residents (and those living downstream from the DuPont plant, which is conveniently located on the Ohio River) will have been living with, breathing, and drinking PFOA for close to 65 years.

California, whose state senate approved a bill on Monday banning PFOA and similar chemicals from consumer packaging, is taking a step in the right direction. But state-by-state patchwork regulation is not enough. And although an EPA panel determined PFOA to be a "likely human carcinogen" last year, there are no federal safety standards for PFOA in consumer products. Instead, we got the EPA's "PFOA Stewardship Program," the phase-out agreement with DuPont whose name is so Orwellian, and pathetic, as to defy any humor I could think to lavish on it.

Part of this agreement requires DuPont and other companies using PFOA to submit chemical alternatives to the EPA for review. This could help get PFOA alternatives into use and protect the next generation of workers who manufacture non-stick substances, as well as consumers using the products. But that would require a rigorous, science-based and timely review by the EPA that took both worker and consumer health into account. Always quick to obviate such hassles, the Bush Administration last month revised the process that the EPA uses for chemical reviews in a way that "will delay scientific assessments of [the chemicals'] health risks and open the process to politicization," according to the Washington Post and a report by the Government Accountability Office.

We need an administration that can put the teeth back in the EPA's chemical review process and use the agency to actually protect workers and consumers in the food system. For now, my cast-iron pan will have to serve as a symbol of resistance.

16 Responsesto “The trouble with Teflon”

  1. I just picked up a smallish cast-iron dutch oven at Costco for fairly cheap, and am really looking to move away from nonstick. Been watching this for some time and it's time to make the transition. And, heck, if I'm going to make a righteous (grass-fed) steak frites, the nonstick just never seems to fit the bill.

  2. Ian Lewis says:

    "We need an administration that can put the teeth back in the EPA’s chemical review process and use the agency to actually protect workers and consumers in the food system."

    Be very careful what you wish for. Just remember that when we ask the Federal Government to get "some teeth" and "do something" about this, or anything else, the results are usually mediocre, at best.

    All you need to do is look at the history of the EPA, FDA and other agencies that really did try to protect us.

    But, they really can't. And it is not there fault. They are government agencies and will, therefore, have all of the problems that any bureaucracy will have.

    Might I suggest a somewhat more libertarian approach. Just think about all of the different Organic, Biodynamic and Humanely-Raised-Animal programs out there. And best thing about them, is that they compete.

    When we rely on some governemnt agency, we do just that, rely on them. And if they say something is evil, like, say Raw Milk, then getting it becomes extremely difficult (or impossible if you live in Canada). But, if they say something is just fine (or don't say anything at all), like Teflon, then we go about using these things quite happily.

    Well, that is my 2 cents.

  3. Hoorah for cast iron. I got mine a couple of years ago in a thrift store for six bucks. Someone obviously didn't know how to take care of the thing, as it had some rust on the cooking surface (and maybe that's why they got rid of it, too). It cleaned up perfectly well, and if I keep it seasoned it's every bit as good as non-stick.

  4. anne says:

    my friends with teflon are always amazed at not only how my cast iron skillet is more non-stick than any of their pans, but at how well things taste that come out of it.  plus they last for decades.  never heard of hand-me-down teflon.
     
     
    le crueset is ok.  you can score it cheap on ebay.  my housemate has a similar style pot from holland that is lighter and nicer.  another housemate from france says that they export it because in france it is considered inferior..?..but I do like mine and we have some at my mom's house that she got from her mom and it makes the best rice and beans.
     
     
    thanks for writing!

  5. Debs says:

    Wow, thanks for this detailed post.  I didn't realize that PFOA is even in takeout food containers.

    Debs

    <a href="http://food.gofrolic.org">Food Is Love</a>

  6. Elanor says:

    Debs, that really surprised me too! I guess it's used to line most containers that are sealed to keep grease from leaking out-- french fry cartons, pizza boxes, etc. If your takeout container is shiny on the inside, that's a sign it could contain PFOA.

    This study was really eye-opening for me. Even if we cook local and organic food, if it's done on a non-stick pan, we're adding negative impacts (for our own health as well as that of workers and the food system/environment generally) that I never imagined.

  7. Debra says:

    Thanks for the great post!  We dumped the remainder of our non-stick Celphalon pans a few months ago (alhtough I'll admit it--I cried, just a little).
    I think all of the pans have their pros and cons in the health department, but virtually anything is a safer choice than teflon.

  8. No teflon here, just stainless steel and cast iron. Dead parakeets are proof enough for me. Think of them as the canary in the telflon pan. Burn a teflon pan and it kills birds in the same room. This leadsone to wonder what it is doing to the rest of us critters...

  9. andrea says:

    Interesting post, but it seems that some readers' comments on Teflon/PFOA are a bit misguided. While PFOA has been found to have carcinogenic properties and has created problems for workers/people living near the plant, PFOA is *not* found in Teflon products like the non-stick pans people use at home. It is only used in its production. "Teflon" is a chemical called PTFE, which is non-toxic. (though it will start to degrade if you heat it above 500 degrees).
    If people aren't using Teflon, then, it should be on principle about how workers and local communities are treated during production, but not really about the final product.

  10. The PFOA may be only in the production but if you burn a Teflon pan it will likely kill any pet birds in the room. That simple fact shows it has a high toxicity at least to those birds. I don't want my children breathing what will kill the birds and I don't want to breath it either. Besides, Teflon and all its similar products scratch up. I like metal implements. Cast iron and stainless steel last forever from our mere mortal perspective. Why bother taking the risk with Teflon when cast iron and steel are better? As to stick, that's just a matter of seasoning and choices of oils in the cooking. Easy to handle and safe.

  11. jedimomma says:

    @ Andrea:
    Along with what Walter Jeffires said, recently Cook's Illustrated looked into this issue.  When they contacted folks in the teflon industry, they were told the same thing you posted--that there aren't problems with Teflon until it reaches 500*F, at which point it does emit toxic fumes, but that reaching 500*F is rare in a home kitchen.  Then Cook's Illustrated went back into the kitchen and put some teflon pans on burners at medium, med-high and high (IIRC), and found that in fact these pans DO reach 500*F, or much higher, and quickly.  Their caution is thus to never, ever put a teflon pan on a burner without something in it, which is good advice, but I'd say a fair number of us are probably guilty of failing to do so.  I'd just as soon avoid teflon altogether, frankly.
    And, as Walter Jeffries also points out, it scratches and peels.  Yeesh.
     

  12. What a great post. Thanks! I've been working away from nonstick for several years now. When my mother was first diagnosed with cancer I cooked macrobiotic for her during the duration of her treatment, and while researching that came across a lot of the first hints (to me at least) of how bad nonstick could be. And then I got married and we received an entire set of nonstick pots. Arg. As graduate students it is tough to look that gift horse in the mouth.

    But we did get a beautiful big cast iron pot and have come to rely on it more and more. For baking we almost always use seasoned stoneware, which I love. But I think this post just gave me that last little nudge to dump the nonstick for good.
     
     

  13. Jackson says:

    This is an excellent, well-written post on a very serious subject. And this is but one example of "Chemical-Age" wonders that have turned out to be disastrous. Please try and reprint this article in other publications if possible.

  14. This is an excellent article indeed.  We're happier than ever with our seasoned iron pans.  They were good enough for grandma . . .

  15. Great article. Though I admit - after reading this, my All Clad non-stick frying pan has sat idle, collecting dust. I'm terrified to used it.

    I also wrote about this issue here: http://tinyurl.com/5eydbe
    Keep up the good work,
    Ben

  16. Inda says:

    Hi,

    this is pretty scary. I asked some-one to get a pan set for me from the UA last year and the got a Teflon set. In trying to confirm the price of the set online i stumbled across these reviews, prior to this i had heard nothing sinister about Teflon or its products. I was pregnant then. My healthy lil girl is now 7.5months and the other day i was looking to start steaming some vegetables for her so i opened the set and used one of the pots. Also used one to cook for myslef. She has since eaten the stuff i made using the Teflon pan twice, although the 2nd time she didn't like it much. This morning we noticed her poo was much darker than normal and her dad piped up that it was the food i cooked. This has got me scared out of my wits and remembering what i eat. Pls give me ur thoughts. Do you think she would have a reaction after only eating the food twice?? Also i eat what i cooked for myself twice and i am looking to get pregnant. Is it possible that i might react or contaminated something.

    Ps: I did get a strange smell when the pot was boiling.

    Many thanks for your help
    Inda