Part 4 of 4 – series on exposure to man-made chemicals
After reading my series of articles on man-made chemicals, some may now have the impression that we are living in a toxic soup with risks around every corner. This is not the case for most of us that don’t face —
proximity exposure – (living in an area near heavy industry and thus dealing with contaminated water and air), or
living in a city with highly polluted air.
However, our risks are not zero. Many dangerous chemicals can be closer to home than we think. They are present in everyday products such as furniture, clothing, food, water, hygiene products etc. Traces of some of the longer lasting chemicals have been detected in the bloodstream of practically everyone tested.
It becomes increasingly clear that the chemical industry directly, along with the various ways in which chemicals are used in everyday products, are inadequately regulated. There are many cases in which chemicals are introduced without sufficient study. Moreover, their use is often not justified as was recently exposed in the case of widespread use of fire retardants in furniture and carpets.
Here is a common lament. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. This is the idea behind the precautionary principle, which helps industry and regulators weigh whether an action or decision should be taken when there is insufficient knowledge about potential harmful effects on the environment, or on the health of people. The precautionary principle implies that, when there is uncertainty about the potential damaging effects of substances, especially those that are persistent and toxic in the environment, it is best to err on the side of precaution. The correct approach is to prevent exposure, rather than try to clean up or cure the negative health effects of an environmental exposure after it has occurred.
Given the concern about the various ways in which we can be exposed on a day-to-day basis, and the lack of knowledge about the potential long-term effects of these exposures, here are some suggestions for taking some prudent precautions. In some ways – this list may seem unduly cautious – but they are relatively easy to apply and will be effective. Bearing in mind that many of these chemicals accumulate with some affecting our genes, it is especially important to apply these precautions for young children.
For brevity, the rational for these precautions is not stated in this summary, as that information is presented in a previous article – in the link below.
My wife of over 50 years suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Were toxic chemicals used on the family farm a possible causative factor? We will never know. The linking of illness to chemical exposure is extremely complex as the following article explains.
On March 18, 2021 – we (friends and family) lost a beautiful soul to Alzheimer’s disease. After my wife Margrit’s diagnosis in 2014, we struggled to accept the inexorable loss of her most precious assets that defined who she was. Of course, we also asked why. How could this happen? The assumption – genetics was the main factor. Afterall, her mother died of Alzheimer’s in 1987 and her youngest brother is now in a care home for the same illness.
But then – there are indications that genetics may be only part of the story. There have been no recorded cases of dementia among Margrit’s many Swiss relatives. Moreover, it is early onset dementia, that is typically linked to genetic factors. So the question arises – could exposure to chemicals used on the family farm be a factor? Margrit and her siblings would describe the arial spraying of their crops with pesticides (including DDT in the early 50s) and even running behind the low flying planes! They grew mushrooms which could have exposed them to a variety of chemicals as well as mushroom spores which have been associated with illness, most notably lung inflammation. Their water supply was a shallow well that could have been contaminated with some of the farming chemicals. It’s a legitimate question to pose. Evidence from recent studies shows a possible association between chronic pesticide exposure and an increased prevalence of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease (AD) dementia.
THE CONCLUSION? We will never know the full answer. The linking of illness to chemical exposure is incredibly complex, even in the most extreme cases in which the exposure has been properly measured and the illnesses well documented. Consider 3 examples that demonstrate these challenges – especially when cases go to the courts for which the proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt.
Smoking – In the early 1950s, the tobacco industry had sufficient evidence that smoking could be associated with cancer. By the 1970s there were scores of lawsuits associated with illnesses from smoking, but the tobacco industry was generally successful at defending itself mainly because the cancer link was not unequivocal. Industry could claim that other factors such as genetics, lifestyle, and exposure to other toxins, could have been factors. It was not until the late 1990s that the tobacco industry was held accountable and faced massive financial settlements.
Chromium – Hinkley, California is a small town in San Bernardino in southern California. In 1952, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) installed a compressor station near the town as part of a gas pipeline system linking Texas to California. Chromium (hexavalent chromium) was used as a corrosion inhibitor in its cooling system. The contaminated water was discharged into unlined pools, thus leaking into the aquifer serving Hinkley’s residents water needs.
Julia Roberts in the movie Erin Brockovich
The residents of Hinkley experienced a wide range of illnesses – asthma, nosebleeds, miscarriages, and several cancers. Medical research at that time did indeed demonstrate that Hexavalent Chromium could be associated with many of those illnesses. Erin Brockovich, a clerk at a local law firm, was instrumental in initiating legal action against PG&E in 1993. The case was featured in a blockbuster movie starring Julia Roberts as the law clerk Erin Brockovich.
In defending PG&E, lawyers tried to de-link people’s health problems from exposure to chromium. They likely would have been successful except for the fact that the plaintiffs had evidence that the company knew about the water contamination since 1965 but did nothing about it. PG&E eventually managed to take the case out of courts and reach a settlement through mediation, paying the plaintiffs a total of 333 million dollars, one of the largest settlements of that nature, in US history.
Teflon Manufacture – From 1951 to 2013, Teflon was produced by Dupont’s plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The manufacturing process used Perfluorooctanoic acid, (or PFOA or C-8) – one of many of a class of fluorinated hydrocarbons now known as forever chemicals due to their long-term stability. In 1998 multiple lawsuits were filed against Dupont. Local farmers, residents and company workers claimed to have suffered illnesses and livestock mortalities linked to pollution from DuPont’sParkersburg plant. DuPont was forced to provide millions of dollars for medical monitoring of over 70,000 people.
In 2012, a science panel concluded (from these studies) a “probable link” existed between C8 and six diseases: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol. Since then, there were numerous individual lawsuits from victims of PFOA-related diseases. In February 2017, DuPont settled over 3,550 lawsuits for 671 million dollars.
A pattern emerges – The above examples exemplify the challenges in linking illness from exposure to chemicals – even in the most egregious of cases. The 3 points that become clear are –
Evidence denialism – The industries that should have been responsible had access to credible knowledge concerning the health impacts of exposures but resorted to tactics to suppress such knowledge.
Decades to prove – It took decades to eventually reach the point to when the offending industries were held financially accountable.
Delinking – In court proceedings, the industries were initially able to argue cases de-linking the people’s health problems from exposure to chemicals. However, the court cases eventually succeeded in large part because of the proven cover-ups and delays.
Fortunately, there are some notable examples in which compensation is provided on the presumption of a link. A very important example — Firefighters die of cancer at significantly higher rates than the public. One of the largest studies involved examining nearly 30,000 urban U.S. firefighters over a span of almost 60 years. The study confirmed that firefighters have a nine per cent higher chance of developing cancer at some point during their lives, and a 14 per cent higher probability of subsequently dying from cancer than the general population. In most jurisdictions – firefighters are properly compensated and rightly so. For example – in British Columba if a firefighter develops one of the listed cancers after a certain period of employment, it is presumed that the cancer arose from their employment. The firefighter is then eligible for workers’ compensation benefits without having to prove the cancer is work-related.
So – where does this leave the general population? As presented in the previous blog, many dangerous chemicals can be closer to home than we think. Man-made chemicals are everywhere: in water and dust, food packaging, personal hygiene products and household cleaners, furniture and electronics. Recently (this May 2022), an international group of scientists analyzed more than 1,200 scientific studies where chemicals had been measured in food packaging, processing equipment, tableware and reusable food containers.
This is clearly wrong. These chemicals are introduced without sufficient study and their use is often not even justified as has been recently exposed in the case of widespread use of fire retardants in furniture and carpets. The chemical industry must be much more effectively regulated. There are ongoing legislative initiatives in this direction but industry, through various channels (think tanks, associations, etc.) are unrelentingly directing massive financial investments towards lobbying and financing the campaigns of sympathetic political candidates. It is frustrating to observe. We can only hope that evidence-based decision making will eventually prevail.
As a respite from this rather gloomy picture, the final article in this series on toxins – coming soon — will outline ways in which we can minimize toxic exposure in our everyday lives.
About the link of chemicals to Alzheimer’s disease
A Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure – There are over 9 million known chemicals – many of which are man-made. In the United States, there are some 90,000 chemicals licensed for use; In Canada and the European Union – that number is around 25,000.
There can be great discrepancies country by country, in terms of how these chemicals are regulated. As we saw in the previous article about pesticides and the “forever chemicals’ used as fire retardants, it can take time to document adverse effects. The needed regulations are thus implemented too slowly, often exacerbated by industry delay tactics.
Health effects from toxic chemicals are especially consequential in the following circumstances – a) from occupational exposure – farm workers, firefighters, factory workers; b) from proximity exposure – living in an area near heavy industry and thus dealing with contaminated water and air; and c) living in a city with highly polluted air – cities in China and India are ranked the worst.
Most of us, especially in developed countries are not facing such consequential exposures and therefore may not be all that concerned about exposure to toxic chemicals. This is valid to a point. Unfortunately, many dangerous chemicals can be closer to home than we think. They are present in everyday products such as furniture, clothing, food, water, hygiene products etc.
Here are some examples of our day-to-day exposures – not necessarily in any particular order and without specific details about health effects; each bullet point below could be the subject of a full article. To be clear – the information presented is not meant to be alarmist. It is likely that the health risks for many are minimal. But the health risks are also not zero. A little knowledge about these exposures will be useful especially for parents with young children.
Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure
Air pollution – Globally, air pollution causes about 7 million premature deaths a year. For the most part, this is due to the inhalation of particulate matter (PM2.5) – less than 2.5 microns (about 1/30th the width of a human hair. These tiny articles can also “carry’ toxic chemicals such as by-products of combustion. Air pollution is mostly prevalent in heavily industrialized cities in China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. However, due to the increasing prevalence of forest fires in North America, Russia, Europe and Australia, exposure to PM2.5 is increasing even in rural communities.
Smoking – The dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke are very well documented.
In the kitchen – Cooking with natural gas produces nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and formaldehyde (CH2O or HCHO). All these pollutants are health risks. As such it is critical to use a hood fan when cooking. Also of concern is PFAS (yes them again) when cooking with Teflon coated cookware. It should not be a big concern if the pans are newer than 2015. See a previous blog on this web site.
Indoor air – As discussed in the previous article, fire retardants are everywhere in our homes. PFAS – scientifically known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been called ‘forever chemicals’ because they take hundreds or even thousands of years to break down. Exposure to these chemicals can be in the form of breathing in off-gases but also microfibers that can flake off furniture and carpeting.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), have been called ‘forever chemicals’ due the fact they take hundreds of years to break down. There are over 4700 different PFAS molecules.
Tap water – PFAS – a study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit advocacy organization, reveals a widespread problem: the drinking water of most NorthAmericans likely contains traces (parts per trillion) of PFAS – because they are so widely used. The problem is widespread in Europe as well, but efforts are underway to ban many of these substances.
Tap water – Lead – Another concern in water, is lead exposure – the lead leaching from galvanized pipes. Flint, Michigan was a recent example that was widely covered by the media. Flint changed its water source from treated water from Lake Huron to water from the Flint River without adequate use of corrosion inhibitors. Water samples tested in a number of Canadian cities, including Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, and Prince Rupert, were found to contain elevated lead levels. Lead in drinking water is regulated and should thus be frequently monitored
Tap water – by-products from chlorination – The vast majority of drinking water systems use chlorine to disinfect the water supply. Natural organic material such as tannins and lignins, when present in the surface waters, reacts with chlorine which can create chemicals called ‘trihalomethanes’ including chloroform – a banned chemical. Trihalomethanes in drinking water are regulated and must be routinely monitored.
Canned food – the aluminum cans used are lined with plastic films – some (or many formulations of which contain Bisphenol A, or A 2017 study carried out in California tested a variety of canned products. Forty percent showed detectable levels of BPA. An earlier Canadian study revealed similar findings. BPA exposure is linked to multiple health effects including fertility issues, altered brain development, cancer, and heart complications. It is thus banned for many uses – especially baby products.
Bottled beverages – Most bottled water as well as other beverages are sold in plastic #1, also known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Research shows that PET may be an endocrine disruptor, altering our hormonal systems. Although this type of plastic is BPA free, phthalates (plasticizers) in bottles can still leach into the water, especially when exposed to high temperatures or stored for an extended period of time. Basically, phthalates are practically in all products stored in plastic. Also of note – bottled water can contain significant amounts of microplastics.
It’s shocking how widespread the PFAS contamination is across many types of makeup products – especially considering obvious ingestion of these chemicals when used in lipstick and lip gloss.
Cosmetics – There is such a variety of cosmetics on the market with products coming from around the world. In general, the cosmetics industry seems to be very poorly regulated. Indeed, toxic substances may not even be listed in the ‘ingredients” panel. Here are some examples – formaldehyde in hair straightening products and nail polish // coal tar in eye shadow // parabens in skin and hair products // dioxane in dyes and shampoos. Of particular concern is the use of PFAS (AGAIN) -to make lipstick, lotions, cosmetics, and hair products more water-resistant, durable and spreadable as well as the use of benzene, despite the fact it’s a banned carcinogen
Pesticides in food – For the most part – pesticide use in the USA, Canada, and Europe, is well regulated. However – According to a recent (2019) study by the Environmental Working Group, there were several fruits and vegetables that contained detectable levels of pesticides – such as strawberries, spinach, kale, peaches, etc. Although, the levels detected, were below published health guidelines, this may not be of comfort to those wanting to completely avoid exposure.
Antibiotics and other chemicals in Meat – Industrial agriculture to supply the world’s growing demand for meat protein involves animals ‘farmed’ under very crowded conditions. This then, requires the use of antibiotics used in ‘sub-therapeutic’ doses to prevent disease. This in turn raises the risk of transmitting drug-resistant bacteria to humans either by direct infection or by transferring resistance genes from agriculture into human pathogens. A separate issue with meat is caused by grilling – no doubt a favourite way to cook meat. Meat cooked this way exposes us to by-products of combustion – chemicals called Poly-aromatic hydrocarbons – PAH
Fish – Mercury – Different types of fish and other seafood contain varying amounts of mercury. Larger fish such as tuna usually contain higher levels. They eat many smaller fish, which contain small amounts of mercury. As it’s not easily excreted from their bodies, levels accumulate over time. This process is known as bioaccumulation.
Fast food – PFAS (again!!) – A variety of PFAS compounds are commonly used to keep your burger from sticking to its fast-food wrapper, your salad from turning its fiber-based bowl into a soggy mess, and your popcorn bag from bursting into flames in the microwave.
Household products – cleaners, paints, paint thinners, etc. are generally toxic and must be used in accordance with the instructions. Of particular concern are paint strippers. The active ingredient in the most effective paint strippers is dichloromethane, also called methylene chloride. Dichloromethane has serious health risks including death, is likely a carcinogen, and is banned in some countries for consumer use.
This list is not exhaustive. There are more ways in which we can be exposed to toxic compounds. This area of environmental science is indeed understudied. It can certainly seem overwhelming with almost no options to avoid exposure. As well, it is not possible to comment adequately on the various health risks as there is insufficient data to prove (or disprove) the risks.
In the next article (Part 3), I will outline the challenges in linking illness to exposure and thus ensuring adequate regulations. Buy it is not as bad as it seems.
In the final article (Part 4), I will outline options for avoiding, or at least minimizing risks.
It’s likely that all of us have detectable levels of these 2 classes of forever chemicals in our blood – DDT and fire retardents.
The phrase “Better Living Through Chemistry” is a variant of an advertising slogan DuPont adopted in 1935. The slogan was later changed to – “The miracles of science”. But some such “miracles” came back to haunt us.
Toxic Exposure – Forever Chemicals.
There are more than nine million known chemicals (man-made and natural) including hydrocarbon fuels, proteins, fats, sugars, cellulose, pesticides, dyes and individual elements like lead and mercury. We are exposed to man-made chemicals through the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the products we use – plastics, furniture, food wrap, cookware, cans, carpets, shower curtains, electronics and hygiene items. They are pretty much everywhere around us. Unfortunately – many are toxic. Scientists and researchers are concerned that many of these chemicals may be carcinogenic or wreak havoc with our immune and endocrine (hormone) systems.
In my experiences over the years of my career in this field, I have concluded that there are many cases in which:
1) The chemicals have been introduced without proper assessments;
2) They are sometimes used in dubious applications; and
3.) Many are not adequately regulated.
Moreover, consumers are often unaware of the degree of human exposure. This next 4-part set of articles will hopefully provide useful information on this topic.
Part 1 – two introductory stories that exemplify these points.
THE DDT STORY – FROM MIRACLE “GODSEND” TO A SILENT SPRING.
In the late 1930s, Paul Müller, a research chemist at the firm of Geigy in Basel was searching for an insecticide to kill clothes moths. Some of his experiments involved a compound known as dichloro-diphenyltrichloroethane, (later shortened to DDT) originally made by a German chemist in 1874. The experiments demonstrated this compound’s effectiveness to kill insects even when applied in small doses.
DDT, the most powerful pesticide the world had ever known, was highly effective initially but also exposed nature’s vulnerability. It first distinguished itself during World War II, clearing South Pacific islands of malaria-causing insects for U.S. troops while also being used as an effective delousing powder in Europe – earning the Nobel Prize for its inventor in 1948.
DDT was considered a ‘Godsend’ in the 1940s and 1950s. It was thought to be effective and totally safe. In 1948, Life Magazine showed a photo of children playing in the fog of a DDT spray.
Toxic Exposure – Forever Chemicals
Then came the fallout. DDT use was killing wildlife and endangering human health and it did not take too long for this to become obvious. The information shock was mainly administered by the biologist and author – Rachael Carson who wrote the powerful book – Silent Spring. This iconic book became one of the key foundations of the environmental movement. The book presented mounting evidence of the pesticide’s declining benefits plus its highly negative environmental and toxicological effects. The book stimulated widespread public concern over the dangers of improper pesticide use and the need for better pesticide controls. DDT was clearly shown to be very persistent in the environment, to accumulate in fatty tissues (and thus bioaccumulate) and to travel long distances in the upper atmosphere.
One phrase in the book stood out “every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals from the moment of conception to death’. In fact – this prompted me to examine exposure in my own family. By the 1970s, I had access to the equipment needed to measure DDT and thus tested the concentration of DDT in my wife’s breast milk during the time she was breast feeding our youngest child. It was indeed detected but below the WHO safety level (which was of little comfort).
Despite a storm of push back from industry, DDT was banned in most countries by 1972. Today, DDT is classified as a probable human carcinogen by U.S. and international authorities.
After the use of DDT was discontinued in the United States, its concentration in the environment and animals has decreased, but because of its persistence, residues of concern from historical use remain.
The DDT story clearly demonstrates the dangers of rushing to market a chemical product and to promote its indiscriminate use. It could be argued that the issues around the longer-term environmental issue may have been challenging to predict in those days. But two of the product’s shortcomings should have been obvious.
Firstly – it is a full spectrum pesticide and thus kills indiscriminately – including pollinators and insects that fish need for food.
Secondly, insect resistance to pesticides was well established knowledge. It was only a matter of a few years before subsequent generations of mosquitoes became resistant to the effects of DDT.
BIG TOBACCO AND BIG INDUSTRY COLLUDE – THE FIRE RETARDENT STORY.
It began in the early 1970s when regulators pressured tobacco companies to manufacturer self-extinguishing cigarettes. The goal was to reduce the risk of fires in homes, offices and elsewhere caused by negligent smokers. Tobacco companies did not want to change their products’ desirability and instead changed the narrative by working with the chemical industry.
Chemical manufacturers and tobacco firms launched an extensive media campaign. It encouraged furniture manufacturers to use flame retardant chemicals in their products to reduce the risk of fires. The campaigns and high-level lobbying worked and it soon became regulated that furniture, carpets, children’s pyjamas, car seats, and other household and office items were required to be treated with fire retardants.
Now let’s look at what these flame retardants are. DDT is an example of a very stable and often toxic chemical that is created when carbon and chorine are combined. When carbon binds with fluorine atoms many of the resulting compounds are even more stable with most now called “forever chemicals”. Hundreds of everyday products are made with fluorinated chemicals called PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). Teflon is a PFAS.
Toxic Exposure – Forever Chemicals in the home.
Fire retardants are everywhere in our homes. Exposure can be in the form of breathing in off-gases and microfibres, etc.
For years, scientists and environmental advocates have been concerned about persistent forever chemicals which break down very slowly and can contaminate the environment. It is likely that there are about 4,700 varieties of PFAS chemicals in use. Virtually all of us have detectable levels of PFAS in our blood. Very small doses of PFAS are linked to cancer, as well as harm to reproductive and immune systems.
But do they really work? Recent studies are showing that flame retardants often delay ignition for only a few seconds and can make fires more dangerous due to increased smoke and toxic gases. When flame retardants are present, fires produce halogenated dioxins and furans, which may contribute to elevated rates of cancer in firefighters. Many now conclude that self-extinguishing cigarettes would have been the correct course of action.
Firefighters are at an especially high risk of chemical exposures and are thus advocating for fire retardants to be either banned entirely or to be significantly curtailed in their use. However, they face a powerful lobby – especially the American Chemical Council (ACC). Out of 16 states which tried to pass flame retardant bans between 2017 and 2019, 12 failed. The ACC was registered to lobby state representatives in 10 of those 12 states.
The European Union (EU) has recently prohibited the use of halogenated flame retardants in plastic enclosures and stands of electronic displays and introduced several new labelling requirements for some hazardous substances. The new regulation took effect starting March 1, 2021. The chemical industry has launched legal proceedings as a result.
Toxic Exposure – Forever Chemicals
These 2 stories clearly demonstrate the challenges society faces in dealing with toxic man-made chemicals that – in my view – are introduced without proper assessments along with heavy-handed resistance by industry, to enhanced regulations. Upcoming articles will clarify the scope of these challenges.
PART 2 – OUR DAILY DOSE OF TOXICS – the ways in which we come into contact with man-made and often toxic compounds in our everyday lives.
PART 3 – RISKS TO HUMAN HEALTH – the challenges of linking illness to chemical exposure – with some notable legal actions
PART 4 – REDUCING OUR RISKS – the actions we can take as individuals to minimize our exposures.
This was part of my breakfast a few mornings ago. And yes – it’s in a Teflon frying pan. It’s so easy – a tiny (well maybe not too tiny) dollop of butter, crack the egg in, flip after partial frying and out slides the perfect over medium fried egg. But – is Teflon safe? Because I am an environmental chemist, I must have determined that Teflon is safe. However, it is not that simple.
WHAT IS TEFLON? – OK – (eye roll) – a short chemistry lesson. Carbon is an amazing element. Because of the great variety of ways that the carbon atom can bond with itself and other elements, there are more than nine million known organic compounds including hydrocarbon fuels, proteins, fats, sugars, cellulose, pesticides, dyes and more. Some carbon compounds are simple. Carbon with four hydrogens (CH4) is methane (natural gas). Carbon with one other carbon, six hydrogens and one oxygen forms ethyl alcohol (C2H6O).
Many organic molecules are not overly stable. But when carbon combines with chlorine atoms for example, the resulting molecules can be very stable with some highly detrimental to the environment. One notorious example, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane or C14H9Cl5) was developed as the first of the modern synthetic insecticides in the 1940s.
When carbon binds with fluorine atoms many of the resulting compounds are even more stable with most now called “forever chemicals”. Hundreds of everyday products are made with fluorinated chemicals called PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). These compounds can build up in our bodies and never break down in the environment. Very small doses of PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases. Teflon is a PFAS.
And that is the end of the chemistry lesson with a lot of big names to remember (or not).
WHY IS TEFLON CONTROVERSIAL YET SO WIDELY USED? – This is where the Teflon story begins. It is a type of PFAS – more specifically by its chemical name – polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). It was discovered by DuPont in 1938, branded under the name Teflon, and initially manufactured by a spin-off company called Chemours. Because of its stability, it doesn’t react with other chemicals and can provide an almost frictionless surface. Thus – it is widely used as a coating in cooking pots and pans, but is also used in many other products, such as fabric protectors.
A 1950s ad for Teflon pans.
It’s the process of manufacturing Teflon that has been the main source of controversy. Another man-made chemical is used as a precursor. That chemical is called Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8. It is burned off during the process of making Teflon itself and is thus likely not present in significant amounts in the final products. However, PFOA (or C8) has created severe environmental damage in locations near plants manufacturing Teflon.
Starting in 1998, multiple lawsuits were filed in US courts against DuPont in relation to C8 used to produce Teflon. Local farmers, residents and company workers claimed to have suffered illnesses and livestock mortalities linked to pollution from DuPont’sParkersburg plant in West Virginia. In one class action lawsuit settled in 2005, DuPont agreed to provide up to 235 million dollars for medical monitoring of over 70,000 people. These monitoring studies found that residents who drank water from wells near the plant, had a median level of 38 parts per billion of C8 (or PFOA) in their blood — 7.6 times more than the average American. In 2012, a science panel concluded (from these studies) a “probable link” existed between C8 and six diseases: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol. Since then, there have been numerous individual lawsuits from victims of PFOA-related diseases. In February 2017, DuPont settled over 3,550 lawsuits for 671 million dollars.
Of interest – the legal case against Dupont is accurately covered in the drama “Dark Waters’ starring Mark Ruffalo playing the role of Robert Billott, the Cincinnati, Ohio attorney that was the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. Here’s a review
Rather than having a major battle in developing regulations for the use of these chemicals, the US – EPA and the 8 US manufacturers who used C8 agreed, in 2006, to a “stewardship program.” The goal was for the companies to eliminate C8 from emissions and product contents by the end of 2015. Now, C8 and some closely related chemicals are no longer used in the US. However, they are still used in a number of other countries and could potentially reach consumers in certain types of products.
SO NOW THE QUESTION – IS IT SAFE TO FRY AN EGG IN A TELFON PAN? – It would seem that the use of Teflon pans, especially new ones is safe. This is a quote from the American Cancer Institute. “Other than the possible risk of flu-like symptoms from breathing in fumes from an overheated Teflon-coated pan, there are no proven risks to humans from using cookware coated with Teflon (or other non-stick surfaces). While PFOA was used in the past in the US in making Teflon, it is not present (or is present in extremely small amounts) in Teflon-coated products”.
Notice the caveats in this statement — ‘there are no proven risks.’ It is clear to me that it’s almost impossible to prove risks of this sort. It is also difficult to carefully monitor potential exposure over the long term which is likely why there’s the addition in brackets “or is present in extremely small amounts”. Moreover, the American Cancer Institute report does acknowledge the off-gases from heating Teflon. That would be mostly PTFE and other related chemicals and should not be C8 (PFOA) if the pans are newer than 2015. Even so, that is of concern. A recent study (2017) reported in Environmental Science and Pollution regarding the breakdown of Teflon with heat concluded that “Only few studies describe the toxicity of PTFE but without solid conclusions. The toxicity and fate of ingested PTFE coatings are also not understood”.
From my assessments I take precautions. I only have one Teflon pan. It’s of high quality (not a Costco special) and I know it was manufactured recently in the US (thus C8 was likely was not used). I only use it on low heat to cook eggs and fish. I don’t use any metal utensils when cooking with my Teflon pan. I wash it with warm water and soap. It does not go in the dishwasher. For higher temperature cooking I use a cast iron frying pan. I have tossed all of my older Teflon pans especially when I could see scratches. I would also not recommend using Teflon baking pans which would be heated to higher temperatures and for longer times.
THE BIGGER QUESTION – FOREVER CHEMICALS – For years, scientists and environmental advocates have been concerned about persistent “forever chemicals,” which break down very slowly and can contaminate groundwater and end up in rivers and oceans. It is likely that there are about 4,700 varieties of PFAS chemicals in use. They make carpets and upholstery stain-resistant and help firefighters douse burning oil and gas. Some PFAS versions keep your burger from sticking to its fast-food wrapper, your salad from turning its fiber-based bowl into a soggy mess, and your popcorn bag from bursting into flames in the microwave. They are also used as fire retardants in furniture. Virtually all of us have detectable levels of PFAS (and even C8) in our blood.
As with the case of Teflon – how necessary is it that these chemicals are in such widespread use? How can governments better regulate their use to lower community exposure? And – how can individuals limit their own exposure?
OK – I have now committed myself to an article about this. Coming soon.