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Safety Concerns May Stick to Teflon

As a chemical used in the coating is studied for cancer risk, DuPont and cookware companies fear losing sales

Feb 14, 2006 | Los Angeles Times For home cooks and professional chefs, Teflon might be the best kitchen innovation since sliced bread became a cliche.

A pan with the nonstick coating makes easy-to-lift omelets and cleans up like a dream. The concept of a cooking surface so smooth that nothing sticks has even leapt into the political lexicon. An American leader who weathered scandal and criticism became known as the Teflon president.

Now, something finally seems to be sticking to Teflon a nasty environmental tempest that has maker DuPont Co. and cookware companies worried that garage sales in the coming weeks will be stuffed with discarded nonstick pots and pans.

Home chefs have questioned the safety of nonstick cookware since an Environmental Protection Agency advisory board asked regulators in late January to examine whether a chemical that gets slippery Teflon and similar coatings to bond to a pan can cause cancer. About 70% of the cookware sold in the U.S. has a nonstick coating, according to the Cookware Manufacturers Assn.

"I stopped using those pans because of what I have heard about Teflon and carcinogen properties over the past few months," said Janeen Cunningham of Seal Beach, who recently tossed four nonstick pans into the back of her garage. "I am not sure what to do with them now."

Cunningham now cooks with older stainless-steel pans, using a thin coating of olive oil to prevent food from sticking.

Valley Village resident Tim Kislan shares her concerns.

"I worry about it because you can see when the coating chips off," said Kislan, who says about half of his 15 pots and pans have nonstick surfaces. "Maybe something is getting into the food."

Kislan said he limited the use of nonstick pans to cooking eggs and sauces low-temperature endeavors and saved hotter cooking for copper and steel pans.

Both Teflon maker DuPont and the EPA said cooks had little to worry about. The EPA raised questions about the chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, after studies found it to be in low levels in the blood of 90% of Americans, EPA Acting Assistant Administrator Susan Hazen said. Although the source of the exposure is unknown, she said cookware was an unlikely culprit.

PFOA is in the nonstick substance sprayed onto cookware. The pan then goes through a heating process in which virtually all of the PFOA is destroyed, according to DuPont.

The Food and Drug Administration has been able to detect traces of the chemical in tests in which it has ground up the surface of cookware, which is far beyond the abuse pots take in home cooking, DuPont said.

Still, mindful that sales could fall, DuPont touted the safety of Teflon in full-page advertisements this month in eight daily newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and USA Today. The ad shows an actual-size frying pan with the words, "Teflon Non-Stick Coating Is Safe."

"We stand behind the safety of our products and we wanted to get that out to consumers," said Dan Turner, a spokesman for Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont.

But some question whether such ads reassure cooks or increase the public's anxiety.

Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at UC Davis, recalled that apple sales plummeted in the 1980s after grocery stores put up signs in their produce sections announcing that their fruit was free of the chemical Alar, used to improve the ripening and look of apples.

"The signs just created concerns," she said.

A DuPont rival worried about how the controversy would affect sales.

"Obviously it is a concern for us even though there is no proof of PFOA present in nonstick pans," said Scott Meyer, president of T-Fal, the West Orange, N.J.-based subsidiary of French cookware maker Groupe SEB.

T-Fal has launched a line of uncoated pans as a diversification move, though Meyer insisted that wasn't a direct response to the PFOA issue. The company has fielded hundreds of consumer inquiries about the issue but hasn't seen sales of its goods fall, Meyer said.

"The concern is that there is a steady drip-drip about this and it will become part of the common knowledge about cookware even though people won't get PFOA from cookware," Meyer said.

Some retailers, including Target Corp., which carries T-Fal, Teflon and other nonstick products, declined to discuss the matter.

At Wal-Mart Stores Inc., "we are monitoring the issue," said Karen Burke, spokeswoman for the Bentonville, Ark., retail chain. "We are working with our suppliers and the regulatory agencies to reduce the presence of PFOA in products in our stores."

Burke declined to say whether sales of nonstick cookware had slowed.

A spokeswoman for kitchen goods retailer Sur la Table said the company had fielded consumer questions about the safety of nonstick cookware.

"We tell people who are concerned that there is no evidence that nonstick cookware is a hazard," said Susanna Linse, spokeswoman for the Seattle-based company.

But the upscale pot peddler wouldn't be affected much by the controversy, because the chain sells mostly uncoated copper and stainless steel cookware, Linse said. "People may think they have to cook with nonstick, but they don't realize how easy it is to clean quality cookware," she said.

The chemical for decades has been considered essential in nonstick and stain-resistant products. In addition to cookware, it is used by the aerospace, transportation, textile and electronics industries for such products as wiring and fabrics.

Last year the EPA fined DuPont $16.5 million, alleging that the company hid data on the toxicity and health effects of PFOA for more than 20 years and contaminated the drinking water supply in the Ohio River Valley, next to a DuPont plant in West Virginia. It was the largest administrative fine in EPA history.

PFOA causes liver cancer, reduced birth weight, immune-system suppression and developmental problems in laboratory animals exposed to high doses. In humans, the effects of lower doses are unknown, but it is transferred to fetuses. An ongoing study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore found the compound in the umbilical cord blood of 298 of 300 newborns.

Because there is little information about how the chemical affects humans, the EPA asked U.S. companies last month to voluntarily eliminate public exposure to the chemical. DuPont pledged to meet the deadlines.

But the voluntary phaseout will not end the sale of Teflon and other products like T-Fal's cookware, though it is expected to curtail the release of the chemical into the atmosphere. Regulators have to act, said Joe Hotchkiss, chairman of Cornell University's department of food science, because they don't know whether the problems that result from a high level of PFOA exposure in animals will crop up in humans with much lower contamination.

"We just don't know what it means. It could be nothing, or it could be a lot," Hotchkiss said.

Professional chefs are just starting to learn of the environmental issues surrounding PFOA, said Sumi Chang, who owns the Europane bakery and cafe in Pasadena.

But the pastry and bread chef has a more basic reason for avoiding nonstick cookware.

"It makes a chocolate cake look shiny," Chang said.

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