Teflon has long been a godsend in the kitchen. It’s easier to cook with, since foods don’t stick. It’s easier to wash – and easier on the environment – since it requires less detergent and no dishwasher energy. And it’s easier on the heart and the waistline, since it eliminates the need for cooking in lots of oil, butter or margarine.
Yet Teflon has recently gone from the frying pan into the fire, thanks to some money-hungry lawyers. They’ve cooked up a scary story, adding a dollop of hyperbole for good measure. Unfortunately, they left out common sense and science.
Two law firms filed a class action lawsuit Tuesday (July 19) on behalf of consumers regarding a chemical used to make Teflon called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The lawyers claim PFOA may be hazardous and want DuPont, Inc, the maker of Teflon, to pay $5 billion. If the suit pans out, whatever is left after attorneys’ fees would go to replace everyone’s cookware, impose a warning label on other Teflon products, and pay for medical monitoring and more research.
"I don't have to prove that it causes cancer,” one of the slick attorneys told the Associated Press. “I only have to prove that DuPont lied in a massive attempt to continue selling their product."
But the greasy lawyers’ charges against Teflon just don’t stick.
Here’s the real story. An EPA advisory panel draft report last month concluded PFOA is a "likely" human carcinogen based on massive-dose rodent studies. Experts have disagreed with the recommendation, noting that such studies have historically been extremely poor indicators of human carcinogens. That’s in part because rodents aren’t just little people with little people physiology, but mostly because it appears it’s the high dose given the animals that makes their DNA-repair systems go haywire and form tumors.
Be that as it may, the new report has nothing to do with the Teflon on your cookware. PFOA doesn’t come as a side order with your eggs and bacon because the chemical is destroyed in the manufacturing process.
This has been tested repeatedly. Most recently, a study in the June 1 issue of Environmental Science & Technology confirmed that Teflon-coated products, including cookware and clothing (such as Gore-Tex), cause no exposure to PFOA.
Yes, DuPont funded the study; but somehow it seems unfair to force – say, the Girl Scouts – to foot the bill. Moreover it was conducted by an independent research firm, Environ, and a panel of three researchers led by Harvard Center for Risk Analysis executive director George Gray rigorously evaluated it. "Even when cookware coated with Teflon was abraded [scratched] with a knife, no PFOA was detected” said toxicologist F. Jay Murray, one of the three reviewers.
Earlier studies by the China Academy of Inspection and Quarantine and the Danish Technological Institute also showed no exposure to PFOA from the use of non-stick cookware. The Chinese researchers found no traces of PFOA in 28 different Teflon-coated pans from 18 different manufacturers.
So Teflon is safe for humans, but some have also accused it of harming our feathered friends.
For reasons having nothing to do with PFOA, Teflon can hurt birds if a pan is extremely overheated. In fact, fumes from any type of cookware, not just non-stick, cause avian angst if you leave a pot burning on the stove. Because they have highly sensitive lungs, birds are also at risk from burning butters or oils, aerosol sprays, and cleaning solvents.
“Any type of cookware, not just non-stick, can be dangerous to your pet birds if food is left to burn in pots and pans,” notes University of Pennsylvania veterinarian Karen Rosenthal. “Long before non-stick material presents a concern, fats, oils and butter will begin to smoke in a pan at 400-degrees Fahrenheit and can produce gases harmful to birds. This temperature is well below the point at which non-stick cookware could release fumes.”
So never leave any heated pot or pan unattended, no matter what it’s made of. And matey, don’t ye be lettin’ Polly perch on yer shoulder while ye cook.
But if your only claim to a “beak” is an oversized schnoz, you have more to fear from fear mongering loot-seeking lawyers than from your cookware.
Michael Fumento (mfumento -at- pobox.com), is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service, senior fellow at Hudson Institute, and author of Science Under Siege: Balancing Technology and the Environment.