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Teflon - How Safe Is It?

By: Judy Davie

How long do we have to use something before it's universally agreed that it's dangerous, and how bad does it have to get before the decision to stop using it is made?

It's true chemicals scare me, but never more so than when I read of the health risks when chemicals are used to manufacture everyday household products. What's even more alarming is how long we can read the same message and worse, how long it takes anyone to do anything about it.

This week the products in question are Teflon non stick pans and bakeware that have saved our hearts and waistlines from the excesses of saturated fat. Teflon products, stain proof and waterproof coatings, pizza and popcorn box lining, carpets and upholstery are all manufactured using a group of chemicals known as perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, chemicals that are linked (and have been for years!) with cancer and reproductive problems.

In 2002 in the US, scientists for 3M, the main manufacturer of PFOA voluntarily stopped making the chemicals after lab tests on rats determined it caused cancer, birth defects and developmental problems. They also reformulated its Scotchguard products because it contained a related chemical.
In 2003, the Environmental Protection agency (EPA) stated that "based on certain animal studies, there could be a potential risk of developmental and other adverse effects associated with these chemicals."

In January 2004 in the UK, a BBC environmental correspondent reported that frying pan fumes, specifically those from non stick frying pans made with perfluorinated compounds, were killing domestic canaries, and in July 2004 we read that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had charged the chemical company DuPont, for withholding evidence that this chemical posed "substantial risk of injury to human health, and the environment". At the time of this revelation they had found PFOA in the blood of nearly 100% of the 1500 Americans tested.

Now, 18 months later, January 2006, we hear that the EPA has moved to reduce the production of PFOA in the US by 95 per cent by 2010 and stop using it completely by 2015.

There is no testing conducted here in Australia to monitor levels of perfluorochemicals in Australians but should we wait until there is and they test high before we act ourselves and do anything about it?
NICNAS, a division of the Australian Government Department of Health and Aging is a national notification and assessment scheme to protect the health of the public, workers and the environment from the harmful effect of industrial chemicals released their report this week on using non stick cookware.

"In general, non-stick cookware contains a surface chemical coating. One such coating is Teflon™, a DuPont trademark brand. Teflon or polytetrafluoroethylene is the homopolymer of tetrafluoroethylene, and is used as an ingredient in the coating on non-stick cookware. However, not all Teflon™ products are based on polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) or contain perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

There has been considerable interest in the possibility of adverse health effects following exposure to fumes released when Teflon coated cookware is used for cooking. However, fumes are released only when cookware is heated to extremely high temperatures (between 340°C to 650°C), that is, temperatures which in fact would incinerate food. There are claims that Teflon™ contains PFOA which is released when Teflon coated cookware is heated to 340°C. Available evidence indicates that no PFOA would be released from cookware at or below normal cooking temperatures. It is advised that consumers do not overheat an empty non-stick pan or leave it unattended on the stovetop (especially at high settings) as general good practice.

Based on information currently available, there is no risk to the health of consumers using non-stick cookware under normal cooking conditions.

http://www.nicnas.gov.au/Media/Latest_News/Teflon_270106.asp

So what then of the reported mysterious canary killings? Years ago, canaries were placed in mine shafts to detect toxic gases. If they died the miners stayed away from the area. Why then, are we not staying away from all things made using PFOA?

Whether these chemicals found in the blood of humans came from non stick products, the air, or anywhere else, with a move in the States to ban them completely are we not always better erring on the side of caution, or should we trust that everything available on the market is safe?
In life the only thing we should never question is nature. If nature delivers it, it's typically the safest option, unless the action of man has upset the natural balance of the planet.

My mantra with food? If it's fresh and natural you're safe. The same rule should therefore apply with the pots and pans we use to cook it in.
For my money it's cast iron or stainless steel every time - even at the cost of a little extra fat.