Chemicals that Stick Around: Perfluorooctanic Acid (PFOA)

They're where you least expect them.

| September/October 2006

  • Nonstick pans are convenient, but the industrial chemicals used to make them could be deadly.

This year, the savvy consumer’s list of top toxins to avoid should include a chemical compound known as perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA), a likely human carcinogen widely used to make nonstick cookware, fast-food packaging and fabric treatments. PFOA is one of a family of fluorine-containing compounds called perfluorochemicals (PFCs), which appear never to degrade in the environment.

Commonly known as “the Teflon chemical,” this pernicious industrial pollutant, which sticks around in the environment and in our bodies, has been found in the blood of 95 percent of Americans, as well as in marine mammals and polar bears. Most human exposure to PFOA happens when factories release the chemical into the air and groundwater, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has persuaded eight U.S. companies, including DuPont, owner of the Teflon patent, to phase PFOA out of consumer goods and manufacturing by 2015.

That deadline is several years away, so you might want to put products made with PFOA on a faster phase-out track in your own home. Be wary of all products that claim to repel sticky food, greasy stains and water. Products such as Calphalon, which are made with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), also contain PFOA.

For more information on PFCs, visit the Environmental Working Group website:

Avoiding PFOA

NONSTICK COOKWARE: All nonstick cookware coatings, including the popular Teflon, T-fal, SilverStone and Calphalon, use PFOA as a component of their manufacturing. When overheated (to temperatures of about 680°F), these coatings release toxic gases, which have been known to kill pet birds. According to EWG, a pan preheating on a high setting can attain more than 600°F in two to five minutes. And a class-action lawsuit filed in April alleges that DuPont, the maker of Teflon, failed to warn consumers that some toxins are released at temperatures as low as 464°F, which cooks can approach during overenthusiastic wok and deep-fat frying.

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