Health News Digest

August 29, 2005

Teflon® – Nonstick ScienceTeflon-coated pans

By  Michael D. Shaw

When did every commercial product, including our most commonly used and inherently valuable forms of convenience, become a dire threat? According to some, particularly those with a political agenda that often deviates from science or provable fact, everything (or nearly everything) is a potential carcinogen, environmental hazard, or secretly destructive tool.

Take, for example, the recently declared war against Teflon® (polytetrafluoroethylene). The product was discovered in DuPont’s Jackson Laboratory in New Jersey in 1938, and introduced commercially in 1946. Teflon® is employed as a nonstick coating in kitchen utensils, clothing, carpeting, commercial flooring, food packaging, as well as in its pure form in countless other applications, including medical devices.

Like any substance, including water and air, when used foolishly or improperly, Teflon® can produce ill effects. It was found that if a coated frying pan were left on high heat (greater than 572° F) for a period of time, in an unventilated small kitchen, certain toxic compounds could be released. The most usual effect of this would be flu-like symptoms, lasting a few days.

The ante was upped recently when the US EPA declared that perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a compound used in the manufacture of Teflon®, is a “likely carcinogen.”

According to EPA’s Guidelines for Carcinogen Risk Assessment (also known as EPA’s Cancer Guidelines), this descriptor (“likely carcinogen”) is typically applied to agents that have tested positive in more than one species, sex, strain, site or exposure route, with or without evidence of carcinogenicity in humans.

It is important to note that no definitive human data has yet emerged for PFOA. Moreover, animals appear to be more susceptible to chemical carcinogens than humans. Thus, when the long-term epidemiological data is examined, comparing morbidity and mortality of occupationally-exposed groups and the general population, the differences are not particularly significant. A caveat here is that this observation is essentially true in the years following the establishment of environmental and occupational health agencies (mid 1970’s).

But that caveat just proves that higher exposures to toxics—an unfortunate phenomenon of the pre-regulatory era—is another demonstration of the oldest axiom in toxicology: “The dose makes the poison.”

At the same time, it is wise to look at the concept of “acceptable risk.” Surely, many lives could be saved if we lowered the speed limit on all roads to 25 miles per hour. Yet, we are willing to accept tens of thousands of traffic deaths annually, to keep the status quo.

Remember the big asbestos scare? Even though the majority of the data indicated that the worst scenario for lung cancer involved smokers who were exposed to airborne asbestos for years, it was somehow necessary to spend untold dollars to remove asbestos from everywhere. This remediation was performed in many cases by unqualified contractors, who actually introduced much more airborne asbestos into these occupancies (often schools) than existed previously.

According to John Meroney, a public policy analyst:

“This principle of acceptable risk is one that the public would do well to keep in mind, especially in a culture so driven by the powerful emotion of fear and the media’s shameless efforts to exploit it. Rarely, if ever, do news accounts of the latest ‘threat’ being faced by society give any real sense of the actual risks.”

Instead, rampant hysteria about the latest scare—which includes senseless warnings about sharks at public beaches, or necessary pesticides, or household chemicals—ensues. Most of these fears are an emotional reaction, far from a product of rational thought.

It is this sense of unnecessary fear that is the real villain. Terrence Scanlon, the former chairman of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, seconds this belief. He states:

“Approximately 20 years ago, I studied the Teflon® issue when I was chairman of the Consumer Products Safety Commission. The health and safety concerns were unfounded then and they are unfounded now.”

Why, then, do people seem to respond to each and every scary “threat” that comes down the pike? Perhaps, some enjoy wallowing in self-pity. Others might be mediaphiles, who have to be up on the latest trend. But many are anxious to find an explanation, any explanation, for all human misery. If such an explanation exists, though, it is outside the purview of science.

Let science be done on Teflon®, PFOA, and any other contemporary environmental chemical, but let it be untouched by politics, bias, and propaganda.