Insights by Goldie: Non-stick cookware: slippery truth on a sticky subject

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in March 2006

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has levied the largest fine ever against any offending company, a $16.5 million dollar slap on the corporate wrist. The reason? For 20 years, DuPont knowingly and deceptively withheld incriminating data on the risk of harm to human health and the environment from a chemical used in making Teflon.

The EPA’s own independent scientific panel concluded last summer that the chemical, known as PFOA, is a “likely carcinogen.”

Ninety-five percent of us carry PFOA (perfluoroctanoic acid) in our blood. DuPont denies any responsibility. It denies that manufacturing or using products with PFOA is linked to the presence in people.

DuPont processes perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) and florotelomers, of which PFOA’s are a “breakdown substance” with a range of useful (albeit cancer-causing) properties. Various applications make possible products that are fire, water and grease-repellant, stain-resistant and non-stick.

PFOA also is an ingredient in the manufacture of PTFE (Polytetrafluoroetheylene), used to make non-stick cookware with brand names such as Teflon and Silverstone. An expanded form of PTFE is used to make Gore-Tex fabric (popular in all-weather clothing) and also has medical and industrial uses.

Non-stick cookware and Gore-Tex sure are convenient. But who knew there was a dark side to the advantages? DuPont, 3-M and other chemical companies knew.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) deserves tremendous thanks (and monetary support) for watchdogging DuPont and 3M for years. The EWG repeatedly petitioned the EPA, demanding independent investigations and definitive action to protect the public.

On its Web site, the EWG says PFOAs are the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man. Once in the body, it takes decades to get them out — if you were exposed to no more. They’re reportedly toxic in humans with health effects from stroke and cancer to increased cholesterol. DuPont’s outrageous behavior and corporate cover-up are déja vu — a repeat of the sins of Big Tobacco.

These man-made substances are the backbone of DuPont’s multi-billion dollar company, so what’s a mere $16.5 million dollars in fines? In relative terms, it slips right off the surface. But the bad public relations are likely to stick around for as long as the damaging chemicals.

The fine, however, is an important landmark event, at a time when federal agencies charged with protecting public health have seen rollbacks in their regulatory authority and budgets.

About a month after the DuPont fine, the EPA announced that it had asked — (we prefer it mandated!) — DuPont and seven other companies to reduce PFOA use 95 percent by 2010, and to eliminate it by 2015. Supposedly, these eight major firms, including DuPont, have agreed to do so.

DuPont gushes that it has been reducing PFOA content for years anyway, and that this target should be achievable because it has developed good, safe alternatives. We certainly hope so. But what of the ongoing presence of these chemicals in our bodies?

DuPont’s spin-meisters obviously are worried about the impact on consumer confidence and sales, especially of Teflon cookware. A full-page ad was carried in major newspapers stating, “Teflon non-stick coating shows no detectable levels of PFOA … under normal cooking conditions (and) … cooking … does not release PFOA into your food … The government is studying PFOA, not Teflon.” It claims the EPA has said there’s no reason to stop using non-stick cookware. What’s your opinion?

I’ve never owned a non-stick skillet. I have many cast iron pots and pans, well seasoned and much-used, plus several heavy, stainless pans and old CorningWare pots. I purposefully refused to buy non-stick cookware.

I stockpiled used, iron waffle irons and griddles from thrift shops and garage sales (some new, probably discarded in favor of non-stick products). Such appliances rarely are available new today, so pervasive is the non-stick mania.

Now, a confession: I thought I was so careful, yet this week realized that an electric hot-sandwich maker I’ve had for years, but used rarely, has a non-stick surface. I put it in the trash.

That bothers me, the prospect of consigning such substances to the landfill. But I’m bothered far more by the idea of continuing to use it, or of passing it, and the PFOA legacy, on to anyone else’s kitchen.

Also in this issue

News bites, March 2006

A county policy for locally grown, Omega-3s for kids, Kraft phases out GMOs in China, and more