The question of whether Teflon cookware is safe has moved from Web site chatter to the courtroom. But more than nonstick frying pans are under scrutiny these days. Scientists are examining the chemical makeup of other products like food containers to gauge their potential hazards.
In each instance, the substance being questioned is perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. Studies have shown that PFOA causes cancer and other health problems in laboratory animals, and it is under scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.
A class action suit filed last week against DuPont in several states, including New York, charges that Teflon releases PFOA under normal cooking use and that the company did not warn consumers about its dangers.
DuPont says that while PFOA is used to make Teflon, none of it remains in the finished product, and all Teflon-coated cookware is safe.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization financed by foundations including the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Joyce Foundation, says items other than pans are likely to be the major sources of PFOA. But the group, along with many scientists, points out a different problem: an empty overheated Teflon-coated pan does pose a risk by releasing toxic fumes. DuPont does not dispute that, but there is no agreement between the company and Teflon’s critics over what temperature releases the fumes. The Environmental Working Group says 325 degrees, or a medium flame; DuPont says 660 degrees.
DuPont tells consumers at its Web site that the fumes can injure pet birds and cause flulike symptoms in humans at “abnormally” high temperatures, a condition that the company says can last a couple of days. Other reports say that the fumes can kill birds.
While DuPont defends its Teflon products, other companies are looking into their use of PFOA.
Several animal studies, including one by the Environmental Protection Agency, show that fluorotelomers, chemicals used in food packaging as well as in rugs and clothing, break down into PFOA in the environment and when ingested.
The Environmental Protection Agency began studying PFOA in 1999 and a draft report of its findings has been reviewed by an outside science advisory panel, which has said that PFOA is a likely human carcinogen. The E.P.A. disagrees and wants to describe it as a suggestive human carcinogen. The difference is important because if the panel’s version is the final version the finding could call for a human cancer risk assessment. The final report will be released in the fall.
What troubles the agency, and the Food and Drug Administration, is that PFOA can be found in the blood of 90 percent of Americans, according to a study by the 3M Company. Of the 600 children tested, 96 percent had PFOA in their blood; its source is unknown. Unlike dioxin and a class of chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCB’s, which have been banned as suspected carcinogens, PFOA does not break down, remaining in the environment indefinitely.
Fluorotelomers are used in microwaveable popcorn bags, in packaging for fast foods like sandwiches, chicken and French fries, as well as in packaging for pizza, bakery items, drinks and candy. They are also found in paper plates. There is currently no way for consumers to tell if packaging contains fluorotelomers. According to Tim Kropp, a toxicologist with the Environmental Working Group, “paper plates with a really glossy look probably don’t use it.”
The F.D.A. has looked at PFOA in microwaveable popcorn packaging and found that the chemical migrates to the oil from the packaging during heating. But George Pauli, associate director for science and policy in the office of food additive safety at the F.D.A., said the levels found in the microwave packaging are low. “We don’t see anything at this time to say it’s a safety issue,” he said. “Food doesn’t appear to be a major source.”
Dr. Kropp countered: “Any amount of PFOA you are ingesting may be a problem because we don’t know what levels are safe.”
Julie DeYoung, a spokeswoman for Phoenix Packaging, a division of ConAgra Foods, said: “Studies on PFOA are preliminary, but we are taking the issue seriously and are talking with our paper suppliers about the issue. If the government tells paper suppliers to make changes, we’ll support that.” ConAgra makes Orville Redenbacher’s and Act II microwave popcorn and private label brands.
For those who don’t want to wait for definitive answers from the government, the Environmental Working Group has some suggestions: Use Teflon pans at lower temperatures, and never put them on the stove to heat without food or liquid inside. Greasy food that is heated in a microwave oven in a cardboard container is a potential source of PFOA; take the food out of the container and heat it in glass or ceramic.
For popcorn in the microwave, the group suggests the following: Place a quarter-cup of good quality popcorn in a standard brown paper lunch bag; mix with oil and seasoning; seal the bag with a single staple (one staple does not contain enough metal to cause a spark) and heat for two to three minutes. Alton Brown, who cooks on the Food Network, uses this method.
Another solution is to cook the old-fashioned way. If cast iron pans are seasoned and heated properly, very little oil is needed for browning. Chefs generally do not use nonstick pans because they do not think they do as good a job of cooking as cast iron and stainless steel, especially for browning.