Your Non-Stick Pan Might Be a Health Hazard

August 21st 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Chemicals used for decades to make coatings for a wide variety of household items—non-stick pans, carpets and upholstery, food wrappers, water- or stain-proof, and many more—are ubiquitous around the globe, but according to a new report out this week, those chemicals used to make Teflon materials could be more dangerous than previously thought.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a prominent environmental group, even the smallest concentrations of Perflurooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, pose a public health risk much greater than previously believed—and far greater than current federal regulations designate as safe. But according to the EWG report, the risk of exposure is widespread given that PFOA contaminates waterways worldwide, has shown up in blood samples of nearly every American, and in food sources for some communities.

Developed in the early 1950s, PFOAs were used by companies such as DuPont to produce widely-used Teflon coating, and have since been phased out after studies linked them to developmental defects and other health abnormalities in laboratory animals, which caused the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to step in. The chemical and similar compounds known as perfluorinated chemicals, PFCs, are still used ubiquitously, and reappears as Teflon breaks down. Traces are now found in Arctic polar bears, Ganges River dolphins, and Islanders in the North Atlantic with heavy seafood diets.

Snow on Snout, Polar Bear

According to Bill Walker, investigations editor at EQG, who co-authored the report, the chemical and others that replicate it are still found in "almost every product you can think of that advertises itself as water-proof, non-stick, stain-resistant," and even in waxy sheets of paper used to handle food in cafes.

But regular exposure is not necessarily the issue, he said. "The danger is not so much exposure to them in individual consumer products. The real problem is that their widespread use has spread them all over the world," Walker told ATTN:. Dangers related to PFOA exposure have been documented in previous studies, but the new report notes that EPA standards for the chemical's presence in drinking water are far too weak—even "thousands" of times so.

The EPA's health advisory for drinking water contamination is 0.4 parts per billion, the report notes. But EWG researchers, using data from an earlier study from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, found that a safer level is closer to 0.0003 ppb—lower than the EPA's estimate by a factor of more than 1,300. "Even the lowest level detected in nationwide water sampling is about five times higher than what the research says would be dangerous," says Walker.

Exposure to PFCs

According to David Andrews, a scientist at EWG and co-author of the report, exposure to PFCs have "been associated with cancer, high cholesterol, abnormal thyroid hormone levels, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, obesity and low birth weight," he wrote in a news release.

In 2005, DuPont paid out a then-record-breaking civil settlement of $10.3 million to residents in Ohio and West Virginia, where PFOA was produced, and paid more than $6 million to study how the chemical leeches into the environment and provide filtration for contaminated water systems. Next month, the first of 3,500 personal injury claims will go to trial in Columbus, Ohio.

According to Walker, a "completely broken" system regulating toxic chemicals and public exposure is largely to blame for the EPA dragging its feet on enforcing stricter laws on chemicals like PFOAs.

The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, "allows companies to put products on the marketplace without them being tested for safety... and when a product is found to be hazardous, EPA usually doesn't have the outright authority to go ahead and ban it," Walker said. "The law is completely toothless," he added.