The question of whether Teflon cookware is safe has moved from Web site chatter to the courtroom.
Recently, a class action suit filed against DuPont in several states, including New York, charged that the company did not warn consumers about the dangers of a chemical in Teflon, including an increased risk of cancer. DuPont denies the allegations and says Teflon-coated cookware and other chemically treated products, including food packaging, rugs and clothing, are safe.
Teflon, which has been a part of the American kitchen for decades, is a coating that prevents food from sticking. The plaintiffs say Teflon releases perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, under normal use. 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.
DuPont says that while PFOA is used to make Teflon, none of it remains in the finished cookware.
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 it hasn't let the company off the hook. The group, along with many scientists, points out that 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 Teflons 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 kill birds and cause flu-like symptoms in humans, a condition that the company says can last a couple of days.
The scientific debate and legal issues are not confined to Teflon-coated cookware; other products are also under scrutiny. 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.
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 Co. 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 PCBs, which have been banned as suspected carcinogens, PFOA does not break down, remaining in the environment indefinitely.
Fluorotelomers are used in microwaveable popcorn bags as well as in packaging for fast foods like sandwiches, chicken and French fries, as well as 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 FDA 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 FDA, said the levels found in the microwave packaging are low. We don't see anything at this time to say its a safety issue, he said. Food doesn't appear to be a major source.
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, well support that. ConAgra makes Orville Redenbachers and Act II microwave popcorn and private label brands.
Tips for concerned cooks
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.