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Safety of Nonstick Cookware Unresolved

Consumers should be aware of controversy before using products

Aug 17, 2005 | Charlotte Observer



Consumers should be aware of the controversy and consider whether they want to take steps to limit possible harm while the science is being sorted out. The questions center around a man-made chemical called perfluoroctanoic acid, PFOA for short. PFOA is used in the production of Teflon and other nonstick-coated cookware and water, grease- and stain-repellent products used in carpet, fabric, paper, leather and other goods.

I first wrote on this topic in this column almost two years ago. The issue at that time had taken on urgency because the Environmental Protection Agency had determined that PFOA:

• Is persistent in the environment and continues to build up as more is produced.

• Is present in the blood of up to 90 percent of Americans.

• May cause cancer and other problems, including liver damage and birth defects, in laboratory animals.

The EPA two years ago launched an expedited review of the scientific data concerning risks PFOA may pose to human health. The agency found there was "suggestive evidence" that PFOA causes cancer in humans.

But an independent EPA scientific advisory board in June concluded the association was stronger and that PFOA was a "likely" cancer-causing agent in humans.

Industry representatives point out that consumer goods produced in processes that use PFOA don't necessarily still contain the chemical. But scientists have found that nonstick coatings can chemically break down when heated, creating and releasing PFOA into food and the environment. The EPA has not yet finalized its report and recommendations on the risks.

Any risks, though, may extend well beyond nonstick pots and pans. The Food and Drug Administration has begun a preliminary investigation into the migration of PFOA into food heated in coated paper packaging, such as that used for microwave popcorn, pizza boxes and french fry containers. A spokesman for the FDA told The New York Times last month, however, that it's too early to declare coated food packaging a safety risk.

Where does this leave consumers?

You have two choices. The first: Wait and see. This is the advice of the EPA. (The agency answers basic questions about PFOA online at http://www.epa.gov/opptintr/pfoa/pfoainfo.htm.)

However, you may opt to err on the side of caution and take some steps now to lessen potential exposure to PFOA:

• Set aside your nonstick pots and pans and use stainless steel or cast iron cookware instead.

• If you use nonstick cookware, you should not let it sit on a burner without adding food or liquid. Leaving empty pots and pans on a heat source may allow cookware to get hot enough to release PFOA.

• If you use nonstick cookware, avoid high temperatures. Use low or medium heat settings instead.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit consumer and research organization, also recommends limiting consumption of foods packaged in wrappers or containers coated to keep grease from soaking through. (More consumer tips from the Environmental Working Group can be found online at http://www.ewg.org/reports/pfcworld/part10.php.)

The final word on PFOA and the safety of nonstick pans and pizza boxes isn't likely to come any time soon. Even if additional studies confirm that PFOA poses a substantial risk to human health, ridding it from our lives and environment would be difficult: It's already everywhere, even in the blood of polar bears living in the Arctic.


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