Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 6, No. 3, 2007
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
  Contributing Editors
Bernard Dubé
Robert Rotondo
Dan Stefik
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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Diane Gordon
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
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Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somverville
David Solway
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward



Rose Marie is a health and environmental advocate, writing for TLDP and other publications.



When Teflon-coated pans were first introduced, they practically sold themselves. Two generations later, we are once again learning that better living through chemistry often carries a hidden price.

We are all familiar with the wonders of non-stick cookware. Omelettes slide off pans and scrubbing stuck-on food is no longer a chore. Teflon and non-stick coatings (all spawned from Teflon) have found application in myriad other products, too. We now have stain-resistant drapery and upholstery fabrics, Stainmaster carpets, and Gore-Tex water-repellent clothing. Microwave popcorn is packaged in oil-resistant bags and pizza boxes are lined with grease-resistant coatings, as is packaging for bakery items, fast food, and candy. Firefighting foam, computer chips, phone cables, and even lamps are coated with non-stick chemicals.

It's not so surprising, then, that recent studies show 95 percent of Americans have detectable levels of Teflon-related chemicals in their blood. With so much Teflon flowing through our veins one could hope for slippery blood, less plaque build-up, and thus fewer strokes and heart attacks. Alas, that is not the case. Instead, health concerns about Teflon are coming to light. The chemicals from which non-stick coatings are made, and fumes from heated cookware, are toxic to birds and laboratory animals. Virtually no studies have verified the safety of Teflon and related chemicals among the millions of people using non-stick cookware and coated products, though several of the off-gassed chemicals are considered to be highly toxic and are persistent in the environment.

Teflon is the brand name for the synthetic chemical polytetrafluoroethylene (a term that does not easily slide off the tongue), or PTFE. It was introduced for commercial use by DuPont in 1946. The original version had the problem of being easily scratched by ordinary cooking utensils. Instead of getting trace amounts of iron from food cooked in cast-iron pots, we were getting trace amounts of Teflon. Silverstone, the next generation of non-stick cookware, is more durable than Teflon. It is chemically related to Teflon, however, as are all non-stick coatings in use today.

In 1960 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Teflon for contact with food, based on a study of cooking hamburgers on an old, worn Teflon pan. This did, in fact, result in higher levels of Teflon chemicals in the meat, but the FDA decided it was not a health risk. Since then, neither government nor industry has conducted full-scale tests on the safety of this ubiquitous consumer product.

Teflon's potential health risks to humans and animals managed to slip by our governmental regulatory agencies back then. But now the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-partisan, nongovernmental watchdog agency conducting its own studies on Teflon-related toxins, is raising serious questions about the health risks associated with Teflon and other non-stick chemicals. Jane Houlihan, vice president of research at EWG, comments, "How could they not be in our blood? They're in such a huge range of consumer products: Teflon, Stainmaster, Gore-Tex, Silverstone. If you buy clothing that's coated with Teflon, or something else that protects it from dirt and stains, those chemicals can absorb directly through the skin."

PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, used to make Teflon) is known to cause cancer and other health problems in laboratory animals, and Houlihan is especially concerned because in people, "blood levels are too close to the levels that harm lab animals."

Additional animal studies show that other chemicals used in food packaging, carpets, and clothing break down into PFOA in the environment, as does Teflon when ingested. The FDA says that PFOA in microwave popcorn bags migrates into the oil during heating, but that levels are too low to be of concern.

But US EPA spokesperson Susan B. Hazen indicated in a January 2006 Washington Post article by Juliet Eilperin that consumers using household products with non-stick coatings need not worry, because scientific studies have not established an increased risk of cancer. But then, no studies have been done to clearly establish there is not a risk.

There are two concerns with Teflon and other coatings:
-- the potential toxicity of residual chemicals used to make the coating
-- the release of chemicals during product usage

PFOA is a key chemical in the first category. It is listed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a persistent chemical and potential human carcinogen (cancer-causing chemical). DuPont maintains that all Teflon-coated cookware is safe because no PFOA remains in the finished product. But the company acknowledges that when heated in excess of 660 degrees Fahrenheit (340 degrees C), an empty Teflon-coated pan can release toxic fumes into the air. Independent tests show that during preheating on a regular kitchen stove, non-stick cookware can easily reach a temperature of 736 degrees -- in as little as about three and a half minutes -- and release toxic fumes. Two chemicals in those gases are linked to cancer or tumours in laboratory animals (PFOA and TFE, tetrafluoroethylene), two are potent global warming gases (PFB, perfluorobutane; and CF4, tetrafluoromethane), and one is used as a warfare agent (MFA, monofluoroacetic acid). At higher temperatures achievable on kitchen stove tops, additional extremely toxic gases are released, including PFIB (perfluoroisobutene) and a chemical analog of the World War I nerve gas phosgene.

In fact, the Environmental Working Group found 16 studies conducted over the past 50 years showing that heated Teflon decomposes to over a dozen types of toxic gases and particles. Many of the studies were done by scientists at DuPont who were looking into "polymer fume fever," a condition documented among workers making Telfon products. Symptoms (which can be confused with flu) include malaise, shortness of breath, headache, chills, cough, sore throat, and fever. Pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal condition, may also develop. Cases of polymer fume fever from home kitchen exposures have been reported in medical journals, leading some doctors to recommend stove ventilation whenever using non-stick cookware.

Several states have filed a class-action suit claiming Teflon releases PFOA under normal cooking use, and that DuPont failed to warn consumers about the dangers. This and increasing public concern have motivated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take action to restrict use of PFOA. Specifically, DuPont, 3M, Ciba, and other companies that use or manufacture it have been advised to reduce their environmental releases by 95 percent by 2010, and to eliminate sources of exposure by 2015. The companies would still use it to manufacture non-stick and stain-resistant coatings, however, using new technology they claim would ensure that PFOA would not get into the environment or into products. To protect industry from unnecessary economic loss, however, the sale of current supplies of the controversial chemical and products that contain it will be allowed for an additional five years.

EWG continues to push for a reclassification of PFOA as a "likely" carcinogen in humans rather than a "potential" one. Health advocates are hoping an independent federal science advisory board which has been convened on the topic will concur. PTFE itself (Teflon) has no current toxic designations due to insufficient data (and the assumption that, as a durable polymer, it is inert), though gaseous particles of it are generated while heating cookware and it is detectable in urine of workers.

Odd though it may sound, many bird owners are already aware of the dangers of Teflon -- at least to their birds, for whom the fumes emitted by preheated non-stick cookware and other products have long been known to be deadly. Teflon-fume poisoning is described by veterinarian Darrel K. Styles as a "rapid and lethal gaseous intoxication of all species of birds." There is usually little or no warning before a pet bird will fall off its perch and/or show signs of severe respiratory distress, such as open-mouth or raspy breathing and erratic tail-bobbing -- followed quickly by death. And these aren't just little canaries or parakeets. One grieving bird owner wrote "Dear Abby" in May 2005 about losing his much-loved Amazon parrot to toxic fumes from a burned Teflon pan. (He wanted to warn others "that Teflon fumes are deadly to birds," and "harmful to small children.") A decade ago, nearly two dozen birds died at Texas's San Antonio Zoo when they huddled for warmth around heat lamps coated with Teflon, as some light bulbs are.

In birds, toxic emissions from stove-top pans at temperatures far below 680 degrees can be sufficient to cause severe pneumonia and death. The risk is especially high for small birds, for birds kept in or near the kitchen, and during the winter months, when homes are tightly closed and air circulation is poor. Dr. Styles recommends keeping pet birds out of the kitchen as a safety measure. Some retailers advise purchasers about the delicate respiratory systems of pet birds, and to be especially careful when using non-stick cookware and aerosol sprays of non-stick coatings, and other Teflon-coated appliances.

Reminiscent of the canaries carried into coal mines to detect dangerous fumes by their deaths, pet birds' susceptibility to cookware fumes may be a warning for us.

* * * * * *

Safer alternatives to non-stick cookware are plentiful. Time-tested classics such as stainless-steel pans with a layered core for increased strength, cast iron, ceramic (e.g., Corning Ware), and glass (e.g., Pyrex) are plentiful and versatile. Eve Felder, associate dean of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, recommends this procedure for properly "seasoning" new cast-iron cookware to reduce food sticking:

Wash pan very well.

Heat in 400-degree oven one-half hour and remove.

Add two tablespoons cooking oil to an eight-inch skillet (three for a 10-inch), roll it around the pan, and rub it in with a cloth; wipe out excess oil.

Sprinkle in enough kosher salt just to cover the bottom and rub into the pan (this helps seal the surface); discard salt.

After first few uses, repeat steps 2 to 4 once more.

Seasoned cast iron should be washed in very hot water with a small drop of liquid soap, then rubbed dry to prevent rusting. To maintain a smooth, water-repellent surface, it periodically may be necessary to heat the pan on a burner and repeat the oiling and salting procedures. This same procedure will repair a pot that has been left soaking in water, which can rust and degrade the surface (remove rust with a scouring pad before retreating the pan).

Stainless-steel cookware doesn't have a curing procedure. To reduce food sticking in stove-top skillets, wait to add food until the cooking oil's surface has a wave of movement to it but is not smouldering. Add food carefully to maintain an oil layer beneath it, and do not attempt to move food until it loosens (as it cooks) and can be easily flipped or moved. Note that some stainless-steel products are Teflon-coated.

If casting out that non-stick cookware seems like too much to ask, reduce toxic gas emissions of coated pans by using low cooking temperatures, never preheat pots without food or liquid, and always use a stove vent.

Related articles:
Telfon and your Toxicity
Retreat from Meat
Cell Phone Users Beware
Slice and Salmon Lice
The Soya Bean Conspiracy
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