Are You Polluting Your Body With Nonstick Chemicals?

In a breakthrough report, analysts outline chemical company cover-ups and ID the most toxic ways nonstick chemicals are contaminating your body.

April 30, 2015
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There's no debating that a particular class of nonstick chemicalsper- and poly-fluorochemicals (PFCs)has made our lives easier. Less mess sticking to the bottom of pots, pans, woks, and waffle irons and quesadilla makers after whipping up a meal; super-waterproof jackets and shoes for everyday life and adventuring alike; and fewer stains that settle into our carpets and couches after many one too many glasses of wine. PFCs even keep grease from seeping through microwave popcorn bags.

But to say this convenience has come with a price tag is an understatement. A new report from Environmental Working Group researchers reveals a legacy of secrecy and deceit surrounding the safety of these household chemicals that are now so widely used they're found inside us, too. And the new concern? Newer, "safer" nonstick replacement chemicals could be nearly as bador equally damagingas the chemicals that have been polluting U.S. workers, waterways, and consumers for decades. 

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The report also outlines a history of secrets from nonstick chemical manufacturers like DuPont and 3M, including the Environmental Protection Agency's slamming DuPont with the largest-of-its-kind fine ($16.5 million) for polluting families living near chemical manufacturing locations in the Ohio River Valley. The fine was the result of DuPont's decades-long cover-up of the health hazards of a substance known as C8, a chemical vital to Teflon production. Teflon, dubbed the "miracle of modern chemistry," turned up in thousands of products, in everything from nonstick cookware and waterproof clothing to camping gear and even dental floss. At its peak, Teflon sales reached $1 billion a year. 

Highlights of the EWG Report 
"Internal documents revealed DuPont had long known that C8, also known as PFOA, caused cancer, had poisoned drinking water in the mid-Ohio River Valley, and polluted the blood of people and animals worldwide. But the company never told its workers, local officials and residents, state regulators, or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

After the truth came out, research by federal officials and public interest groups, including EWG, found that the blood of almost all Americans was contaminated with PFCs, which passed readily from mothers to unborn babies in the womb. In 2006 the EPA confirmed that PFOA is a "likely human carcinogen."

While production, use, and importation of PFOA has ended in the United States, Dupont and other companies are using similar compounds that could be not much—if at all—safer. EWG and a band of international scientists note that few of these next-generation PFCs have been properly tested for safety, with most of the names, composition, and health effects hidden as trade secrets. "With the new PFCs' potential for harm, continued global production, the chemicals' persistence in the environment and presence in drinking water in at least 29 states, we're a long way from the day when PFCs will be no cause for concern," the report authors note.

At the root of the problem? The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) clearly needs an updating. With more than 80,000 chemicals in use, the majority have never been properly tested for long-term impacts on human health. But EWG warns of industry-friendly "reforms" and urges real legislation that would actually protect consumers, not industry's bank accounts. 

EWG's report highlights examples of how nonstick chemicals are dangerous (and how important health information was not always readily released to the public):

• A 2000 study by 3M showed deaths among monkeys exposed to low levels of its PFOS nonstick chemical.

• In 1984, secret DuPont tests found the C8/PFOA chemical used to make Teflon was in the drinking water of two nearby communities in the Ohio River Valley. 

• A creek that ran through a landfill contaminated a nearby farm, killing more than 100 of the family's cows.

• PFCs are linked to abnormal thyroid hormone levels, hypertension, preclampsia, obesity, low birth weight, kidney and testicular cancer, infertility, and other health problems

• PFCs don't break down in the environment for years (and take years to leave our bodies.)

• After intense negotiations that included the prospect of criminal charges by the Justice Department, DuPont agreed in 2006 to "voluntarily" phase out the chemical by 2015. EPA assessed a record $16.5-million fine against the company for not disclosing the health studies on PFOA, as required by the Toxic Substances Control Act, although DuPont maintained that it had not broken the law. And in 2006 EPA's Science Advisory Panel classified PFOA as "likely to be carcinogenic to humans."


Learn More: Read the Complete Report

How Nonstick Chemicals Get Into Us 
According to EWG, people become contaminated with PFCs in just about every way imaginablefrom drinking water, food and food packaging, indoor air, household and workplace air, carpet and furniture treatments, clothing, cosmetics, nonstick cookware, and many other products.

There is much uncertainty about how much exposure comes from each source. In 2015, EPA suggested the stain- and waterproof-treated products could be the primary source responsible for the widespread contamination of humans with PFCs. In occupants of homes that are regularly treated with stain-resistant sprays, PFC levels can be much higher than in the general public.

The report also notes:
• In children, who come into closer and more frequent contact with carpets and dust, levels are almost always higher than in adults. 

• In 2009, EPA measured the chemical content of 116 products commonly treated with PFCs and estimated the typical amounts in a U.S. home. The results showed that more than 95 percent of exposure in the home came from carpets and carpet treatments.

• Upholstery, floor treatments, and textiles also bring PFCs into the home. 

More: 200 Scientists Agree: Non-Stick, Waterproof Chemicals Have Got to Go

Possible PFC Sources and Ways to Avoid Them

Possible Source: Microwave Popcorn Bags—PFCs serve as a greaseproof barrier, keeping the butter and oils inside the bag (and not on your lap).
Avoid It: Make popcorn the old-fashioned way with some oil in a regular pot on the stovetop or use this DIY microwave popcorn trick

Possible Source: Stain- and Water-Proof Apparel
Avoid It:
EWG says that while almost any waterproofing or stain repellent is likely to contain PFCs, the fabric may be labeled with brands such as: Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster, Polartec, Gore-Tex. Greenpeace testing has uncovered PFCs in jackets made by North Face, Patagonia, Adidas, Columbia, and Jack Wolfskin; in swimwear made by Disney, Burberry, and Adidas; and in shoes by Nike and Puma. Another source: The new Apple Watch! Even the wristband of the new Apple Watch Sport model is made with PFCs, EWG warns.

Possible Source: Nonstick Kitchenware—The leaching could be worse when scratches are present.
Avoid It: Opt for stainless steel, glass, or cast iron instead.

Possible Source: Takeout Containers/Wrappers—Nonstick chemicals keep grease from escaping onto your hands and clothing. 
Avoid It: Limit the amount of takeout you eat (for many health reasons). If you do go out, take your own glass or stainless steel "to-go" container.

Possible Source: Personal Care Products (Even Dental Floss!)
Avoid It: Choose personal care products without "PTFE" or "fluoro" ingredients. Use EWG's Skin Deep to find safer choices. Avoid using Oral-B Glide floss, which is made by Gore-Tex, notes EWG.

Possible Source: Stain-Resistant Furniture and Carpet Treatments
Avoid It:  
Find products that haven't been pretreated, and skip optional stain treatment on new carpets and furniture. Many of these coatings are made with PFCs, EWG warns.