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article imageToxic Teflon: Compounds from Household Products Found in Human Blood

By Carolyn E. Price     Mar 17, 2007 in Health
Evidence is piling up that emissions from the production of synthetic compounds in non-stick cookware, cleaning products, and many other common household products may cause cancer and other health problems.
This is a follow-up to Critical_Conformity's post on
Toxic Nation on Parliament Hill.
"Better things for better living -- through chemistry". From the 1940s to the 1980s, E.I. DuPont roped customers in with their most memorable slogan. However, two products that DuPont developed during that time -- fluorotelomers and fluoropolymers -- are showing how chemically-dependent "better living" can come at a high price.
Companies use these two chemicals to make the following: nonstick Teflon cookware, grease-resistant food packaging like microwave popcorn and pizza boxes, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, shampoos, conditioners, cleaning products, electronic components, paints, firefighting foams, and the list goes on. Tell me, do you have or use any of these? If so, you might want to read on.
Like most man-made chemicals, disastrous side effects can occur when you produce or use these products. The chemicals used to make them or that are released when they decompose are especially troublesome. They can easily escape to roam freely around the planet, persist in the environment, contaminate the blood of people and wildlife, change body chemistry, and are accused of causing health problems, including cancer.
It is truly disturbing to me to find out that the chemical properties that make perfluorochemicals (PFCs) that is so 'useful' in so many products also makes them almost virtually indestructible in nature.
Two particular chemicals in the PFC family, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), are really dangerous because they cannot to be broken down by heat, light or microbes. Other PFCs do break down but when they do, guess what ... they end up giving off PFOA or PFOS.
Studies reported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (some of them conducted in the labs of Du Pont and a former producer, the 3M Company) have shown that rats fed PFOA were more likely to develop tumors in the pancreas, liver, testicles, and mammary glands. PFOS has been linked to liver and thyroid cancer in rats.
In 1993, a study found that 3M workers who were involved in the manufacturing of PFOA were three times more likely to die of prostate cancer than those who had no involvement with PFOA's. The difference was considered 'statistically significant', but because of the small number of deaths overall, researchers warned that "results must be interpreted cautiously". 3M did it's own studies and they showed increased, but not statistically significant, increases in prostate-cancer among their PFOA workers.
3M phased PFOAs out of its Scotchgard fabric protector and other products totally by 2002 due to these findings.
PFOAs have been used in lab tests on rats and the results show that when animals are fed PFOAs, there is a significant increase in the number of miscarriages, weight loss, and thyroid problems. Children of female rats that were fed the chemicals were delayed in their growth curve. However, more disturbingly they exhibited an extra-fast sexual maturation.
PFCs have turned up in wildlife on three continents, in the blood of dolphins, seals, sea lions, minks, polar bears, gulls, albatrosses, bald eagles, sea turtles, etc. and they are commonly found in seafoods. Out of all those whose blood has been tested, Americans have the highest concentrations of PFCs. PFOA has been found in the blood of 90-95 percent of US residents who have been screened for it. And, once these chemicals get in your body, you can't get rid of them very easily. Four years after a PFC enters your bloodstream, half of the original amount is still there.
DuPont officials point out that no statistically significant relationships between PFOA exposure and disease or mortality have been seen in humans. But the Environmental Working Group (EWG) argues that all employee-health studies carried out by 3M and DuPont had flaws in their experimental designs that tended to make it harder to show that effects of PFCs were statistically significant.
Cases of pet birds dropping dead and humans developing flu-like symptoms in the presence of overheated nonstick cookware have raised concerns that Teflon might be releasing toxic PFCs. Industry officials dispute that.
Arguing on somewhat unconventional grounds, a vice president of the Cookware Manufacturers Association told a Columbia News Service reporter, "There's no evidence of safety concern whatsoever with using nonstick pans, and sales figures prove that."
Most scientists would agree that emissions of PFCs during the manufacturing process and the release of these chemicals from food packaging, fabric treatments, etc. are more likely to contaminate you than the Teflon-coated pots and pans in your kitchen.
DuPont has been hit with a series of lawsuits and proposed regulatory actions in many states across the US, mostly to do with the the release of chemicals from their manufacturing plants in Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Washington and California.
Last January, a Scientific Advisory Board appointed by the EPA to review the agency's risk assessment of PFOA voted, by a 12-4 majority, to recommend labeling PFOA as "likely to be carcinogenic" in humans, based on animal studies. DuPont disputes the designation, and EPA has not included it in its as-yet unfinished assessment.
Bowing to enormous pressure, DuPont and seven other companies signed on to a voluntary "PFOA Stewardship Program" in 2006. Under this stewardship program the companies have agreed to reduce PFOA emissions from their factories by 95 percent by the year 2010. They also agreed to a 95 percent reduction in PFOA contamination of their products by 2010 and to completely eliminate the chemical from products and emissions by 2015.
Reacting to the agreement, Ken Cook, president of EWG, told the Washington Post, "As harshly as we have singled out DuPont for criticism for its past handling of PFOA pollution, today we want to single out and commend the company and acknowledge its leadership going forward."
However, DuPont is saying that it will take them somewhat longer to reduce the PFCs that go into automotive, military and medical products "due to their criticality".
Nevertheless, some environmental organizations and scientists are saying that the Stewardship program is no more than a good first step. For one thing, it doesn't commit companies to finding substitutes for PFOA in their processes. DuPont will continue to manufacture PFOA and use it as a processing aid or reactant in making Teflon and other products.
Last April, a resolution was given to DuPont's shareholders to vote on whether the company should completely phase our the used of PFOAs. Only 27 percent of DuPont's shareholders voted for the resolution. Sanford Lewis of the DuPont Shareholders for Fair Value said that even though it was defeated, the vote was significant: "Whenever resolutions on environmental or toxic chemical issues are filed, if they get more than 10 percent of the vote, we believe it sends a message to management that shareholders are growing very concerned." He says that 27 percent of the shareholders "is so big that it can't be ignored". However, so far, Dupont has proven him wrong.
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