Chemicals that Stick Around: Perfluorooctanic Acid (PFOA)

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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.

Replace nonstick pots and pans with stainless-steel or cast-iron interiors; cast iron, when properly seasoned, forms its own nonstick coating. To season, coat the cast-iron pan with lard, bacon grease or pure vegetable oil and heat in a 300°F oven for two hours. Let cool and rinse with hot water. Never wash with dish soap; scrub lightly with salt and water and dry promptly, re-seasoning as needed.

FABRICS: Before buying carpets, upholstered furniture or clothing, find out whether the fabric was treated with stain- or water-resistant chemicals. Most of these are made with perfluorooctanyl sulfonate, or PFOS, which can break down into PFOA, according to EWG. PFOS is in stain-resistant treatments such as Stainmaster, Gore-Tex and Teflon. Scotchgard was reformulated because of safety concerns after a 2001 study (commissioned by its maker, 3M) found that PFOA was present in the blood of children at twice the levels of adults. The new chemical in Scotchguard is perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS), another PFC. Currently, there’s little health information on it, but the Danish EPA suggests it’s persistent in the environment.

To keep PFCs out of your home fabrics, ask for products made with untreated fibers. Wool is naturally water resistant; natural cotton throw rugs can be easily rinsed and washed if there’s a spill. And with regular washing, you’ll get rid of dust mites, too.

FAST FOOD CONTAINERS: Accor­ding to a 2005 study by the Food and Drug Administration, some paper food wrappers, including french-fry holders, pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags, contain grease-resistant chemicals known as fluorotelomers that migrate into oils. From there, they can turn into PFOA in our bodies. Never heat up pizza in the delivery box; slide it onto a stainless steel cookie sheet instead.  

MINDY PENNYBACKER is editor of The Green Guide (, a print and online publication that helps people protect the environment and their families’ health through informed product choices and other actions.


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