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.”
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.
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