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Terrified of Teflon

image of bcarmichael

Photos of pots by t.shirbert @ flickr

When I outfitted my kitchen, I followed the rule of simplicity. I bought a Dutch oven, a large cast iron skillet, and a small, non-stick frying pan.

I used the non-stick skillet regularly for over a year. Every weekend, I would cook eggs for Sunday brunch. I loved how easily they slid out of the pan and onto my toast. The yolk always intact. The task of cleaning them so easy. I'm convinced, in fact, that I won the affection of my girlfriend with the ease of my Sunday brunch.

Fast forward to today, and my beloved non-stick pan has sat unused for weeks. There's dust around the edge, and little white drops of dried fat at the edges.

The problem? I'm terrified of the adverse health effects of Teflon.

I had heard rumors, and read some things about it, but an article posted on The Ethicurean really lit me up. Heat hasn't touched my non-stick frying pan since.

The article was written following results posted by the C8 Health Project. Conducted by West Virginia University, and created as a part of the settlement in a class action lawsuit filed against DuPont by citizens in and around Parkersberg, West Virginia, the study examines the levels of the artificial acid C8 used in the manufacturing at DuPont's local plant. The lawsuit (Leach, et al. v. E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company) can be found here. The website of the C8 Health Project here.

C8, also known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, is an industrial surfacant, an agent that reduces the surface tension of water. Commercially, we know it by its others names: in Teflon, it's the agent that makes your eggs slide of the pan, in Gortex, it's the agent that makes the rain slide so easily off your jacket, and in Scotchguard it's what keeps your upholstery stain resistant.

In the lawsuit, the citizens of Parkersburg claimed that C8 had contaminated their local water supply. Workers and residents alike spent years absorbing the chemicals. The study, conducted between August, 2005, and July, 2006, and reporting on over 65,000 people, paints an alarming picture of the chemical-intensive food chain.

Among their findings:

  • C8 was present in residents' 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.
  • Meanwhile, the blood of one resident contained PFOA levels nearly 4,500 times the median.

Contrary to the properties of my pan, C8 is a "sticky" chemical. Meaning, when it gets into you, it tends to stay there. Given time, it doesn't break down into less harmful compounds. It just stays there.

3M conducted a study in which they claimed to find no health effects in their employees. The rats in their studies were a different story. While adult rats weren't affected, their offspring died both quickly and in large numbers.

The C8 Health Project study highlights what C8 can do in humans. From the 65,000 people studied, they

  • had lower levels of a protein that helps the body fight off bacteria and viruses
  • reduced thyroid function
  • while the found that high levels of PFOA in kids were associated with high cholesterol levels.

3M knew that C8 was in the blood of their employees for years, but only stopped using the compound in May of 2000. The day after the recall, 3M's executive vice president of specialty material markets Charles Reich said, "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." And not just in the US, but in Japan, Europe, and China as well. Dupont has agreed to phase out the use of C8, but not until 2015.

In the meantime, what should you do?

First, if you have new Teflon pans, don't throw them out; use them responsibly. One of the worst things you can do is use metal on them. So avoid using a metal spatula or knife in them. Rubber is better, wood better yet. Also, try not to place them under extreme heats. Studies suggest that at 500 degress farenheit, teflon begins to emit toxic fumes.

The only case in which I would advise getting rid of your non-stick pans is if they're peeling. In this case, you're likely to be directly ingesting flakes of chemical compounds. Not a good idea.

If you insist on replacing your pots, or need to throw out your old ones, I'd suggest to consider a cast iron pan. They're exceptional at retaining heat, low maintenance, and, when properly cared for, can be quite close to non-stick. If you'd like something flashier, go for a stainless steel, and use butter, or olive oil, to coat the surface.

And if you buy new furniture, and they offer to make the upholstery stain resistant, turn them down. The chemicals they put on the fabric can come off quite easily, and the stains you're trying to avoid can be handled just as easily with soap and water.

If you'd like more info, Elanor Starmer's article for the The Ethicurean is quite good.

You can also go directly to the website for C8 Health Project, where they have lots of clinical information.

(Photo of pots by t.shirtbert @ flickr, courtesy of Creative Commons license.)

image of bcarmichael
Ben Carmichael has been a regular contributor since the fall of 2006. He writes about the environment, food and fishing. His work has appeared on The Huffington Post, The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, and Print magazine. He has worked on ... READ MORE >
Great article, and excellent that you gave specific suggestions on how to use teflon cookware more responsibly. C8 falls in a class of PFC chemicals. I reported on the biomonitoring project that was done to study the residents that were exposed to 3M's toxic waste (all the PFC's) a couple of years ago. ( 3M had (legally) buried the toxic waste in big, steel drums which corroded and leaked over the decades. The PFC's have contaminated the soil and hence the goundwater which is being ingested by residents. Both city water (treatment technology is too expensive to remove the chemicals out of the water) and private well water are affected. You are right. The chemicals are persistant. They don't break down easily. In fact, they find their way into the human liver and they latch on to each other and pretty much stay there. Long term studies have not been done, yet, as the chemicals are too new. Here is another article explaining biomonitoring in general: Thanks again for exposing the dangers of Teflon ingestion. Angela S.
Thanks for pointing us to your articles, Angela. This piece dates from 2008, so Ben is probably not watching it for comments at this point.