Teflon labeled cancer risk

Teflon has been making headlines. But they are headlines that its manufacturer, DuPont Co, would rather live without. The focus of the stories is PFOA, a chemical which is a key component in Teflon and other nonstick coatings.

  • A scientific advisory panel to the US Environmental Protection Agency recently unanimously recommended that PFOA should be considered a likely human carcinogen. This classification means that there is evidence of cancer causing effects from both human and animal studies.

  • Leaked documents exposed that DuPont hid studies showing the risks of a Teflon related chemical, Zonyl which breaks down into PFOA. Zonyl is used to line microwave popcorn bags, candy wrappers, pizza boxes and hundreds of other food containers. The documents describe “laboratory tests showing [Zonyl] came off paper coatings and leached into foods at levels three times higher than the FDA limit set in 1967.” Other tests showed “anemia and damage to ...kidneys and livers” in rats and dogs fed Zonyl for three months.

  • Researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital tested the umbilical cords of 300 newborn babies, and found that 99% of the babies were born with trace amounts of PFOA. The scientists are now studying whether the toxic chemical has harmed the infants, possibly by interfering with their thyroid glands and hormone levels.

  • Studies conducted earlier by the Center for Disease Control found PFOA in the bloodstream of 95% of US citizens. According to the EPA, PFOA can remain in the human body for up to four years. PFOA has also been found in marine organisms and Arctic polar bears.

  • DuPont was fined $10.25 million dollars by the EPA for withholding information about potential health and environmental hazards of PFOA. This is the largest fine ever assessed by the EPA. To put the fine in context, in 2004 alone, Teflon accounted for $1 billion dollars in sales for DuPont.

  • DuPont has settled a PFOA contamination class-action lawsuit for $107.6 million after residents near a Teflon plant in West Virginia claimed that PFOA escaped from the factory and contaminated local waters. A similar legal action based on in another locality remains unresolved.

Teflon’s breakdown chemical, PFOA, is a serious concern for a number of reasons. In addition to evidence that it is a likely cause of cancer, it falls into the category of chemicals which are persistent and accumulative. This means that rather than breaking down into harmless substances over time, they remain as they and accumulate in the environment. This is why studies which found PFOA in new born infants and in polar bears are so significant. Since neither newborns or polar bears use teflon coated objects, the presence of PFOA in their bodies shows that the substance builds up in the body and that exposure comes from environmental buildup of the chemical.

Rolf Halden, a research in the John’s Hopkins study of Teflon in infants commented, “We make a lot of chemicals that are extremely persistent, and we mass-produce them, but we never consider the life cycles of these chemicals. It’s kind of a tragedy. In some instances, it take years or decades before we learn of their toxicity [to people.]” DuPont Co. says that to date PFOA has had no known health effects on humans.

In addition to its well known uses in nonstick coatings, PFOA is used in manufacturing stain-resistant clothing, bedding and upholstery fabrics, rain-repellant clothing, house paint, computer chips, coating on irons, stain resistant treatments for carpets, and a wide range of other products. While there is still debate about the toxicity of Teflon at normal temperatures, it is well established that at high heat, Teflon emits a toxic gas.

Early in 2006, the EPA reached an agreement with DuPont and six other chemical companies to eliminate 95 percent of the release of PFOA by 2010. This voluntary agreement includes the eliminating the release of the chemical by emissions during production, as well as during consumer use. The companies have not agreed to eliminate the chemical, but to ensure that it will not be released either from finished products or from manufacturing plants.

PFOA stands for perfluoroctanoic acid. DuPont is the sole producer of PFOA in North America, and owns the Teflon brand. PFOA is found in products made by a wide range of companies.

Lots more on teflon at http://www.ewg.org/issues/siteindex/issues.php?issueid=5014.