The Frightening Truth about Teflon

The Frightening Truth about Teflon

Teflon - the truth behind the film Dark Waters

Have you seen Mark Ruffalo’s 2019 film ‘Dark Waters’? The American legal thriller centres on an environmental lawsuit and the dangers of Teflon, and has recently been in the spotlight after being added to Netflix.

At The Green Woman, we strongly believe in reducing our daily exposure to chemicals, so naturally we were shocked by the revelations in this true story. It spurred us into doing some digging of our own and, with the help of our partners Breast Cancer UK to understand the science, we wanted to give you an update on the product at the heart of the scandal, Teflon.

What is Teflon and What Lies Beneath the Surface…

Teflon, a household name synonymous with non-stick cookware, is derived from per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), man-made chemicals that have been widely used in consumer products since the 1950s. Notorious for their ‘environmental persistence’, PFAS are what are commonly called ‘forever chemicals’; that is - they don’t break down, instead they stay in the environment for prolonged periods of time. Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which are long-chain perfluoroalkylated acids (PFAAs), were recognised as hazardous in the early 2000s. Consequently, their use has been phased out in many countries, including the UK. PFOS, its salts, and PFOSF were added to Annex B of the UN Stockholm Convention for persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and PFOA was added to Annex A in 2019. These chemicals were commonly used in the production of Teflon.

DuPont – the Company at the Heart of the Teflon Scandal

Teflon was manufactured predominantly by DuPont - one of the world's largest producers of chemicals and science-based products. It was first discovered by chemist Roy Plunkett in 1938 whilst he was working for DuPont and was initially not intended for consumer use, rather as a material for industrial and military applications due to its extraordinary heat resistant and non-stick properties. After World War 2, DuPont began exploring more commercial opportunities and by the 1950s had introduced Teflon-coated cookware, which revolutionised cooking by providing a non-stick surface that made food preparation and clean up easier. It was hailed as ‘the housewife’s best friend’.

So, when did Dupont realise the dangers that PFAs presented to the environment and the general public? The answer is, they had always known. Dupont had been aware of these dangers and concealed them for decades. In 2015, the USA's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) imposed a $16.5 million fine on the company—marking the largest administrative fine in the agency’s history—for concealing studies spanning decades that indicated PFOA's potential health risks, including cancer, birth defects, and liver damage.

DuPont was inundated with lawsuits and damning research findings. Dark Waters centres around one of its most shocking cases, when the giant was exposed for contaminating farmland and residents around its Washington Works plant in West Virginia. According to the EPA, workers at the plant were reporting health problems as far back as 1981. DuPont scientists knew that PFAs could cross from the placenta to contaminate fetuses. Workers’ babies had been born with eye defects similar to those reported in rats that had been exposed to PFAs.

Forever Chemicals polluting groundwater

The wider ramifications are chilling; contaminants had been pumped into the Ohio River for years, contributing to huge levels PFAS penetrating oceans and damaging ecosystems worldwide. Their highly persistent qualities mean that they can travel long distances through air and water currents. They also bioaccumulate in organisms, leading to their presence in ecosystems far from their original sources of contamination.

From these reproductive issues to developmental abnormalities and even cancer, the list of afflictions linked to Teflon is distressingly extensive;

    • Reproductive effects such as decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women.

    • Developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioural changes.

    • Increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers.

    • Reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response.

    • Interference with the body’s natural hormones.

    • Increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity.

A Disastrous Global Legacy

Although PFAs were banned from Teflon products in 2015, 99% of humans now have it in their bodies. They have been found in the blood of over 330 different wildlife species, including polar bears, whales, pandas, horses, cats, squirrels and frogs, and are routinely detected in human blood. They can still be found in many of the household products that we use day in, day out, such as;

    • Dental Floss

    • Microwave popcorn bags

    • Irons and some ironing board covers

    • Hair straighteners, curling wands etc.

    • Baking gear, including most parchment/grease proof paper

    • Carpets and sofas (and the Scotch Guard type stain repellent treatments many manufacturers offer)

    • Some brands of waterproof mascaras.

    • Some light bulbs

    • Toasted Sandwich makers, waffle makers, rice cookers and many plug in slow cookers and woks

    • Some waterproof clothes, namely raincoats

    • Outdoor decking waterproofing sealants

    • Some items of children’s school uniforms.

Dangers of non-stick cookware

Why there is Still Cause for Concern

After many years of legal fighting, the formula was changed to remove PFOSs and PFOAs, however, the chemicals they were replaced with are still highly persistent and there are still concerns about their levels of toxicity. 

From a science perspective, Breast Cancer UK’s PFAS review highlights concerns about potential replacements, including HFPO-DA Hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (also known as Gen X), stating that they may also be persistent and potentially harmful;

"Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly known as 'forever chemicals,' are persistent, mobile, and widespread in the environment. Despite bans on certain PFAS due to their recognized hazards, replacement chemicals are emerging with similar persistence and potentially harmful effects. Breast Cancer UK supports a ban on all non-essential use of PFAS." – Breast Cancer UK.

Despite mounting evidence of the toxicity of the new formula, Teflon is still being purchased worldwide. When heated to beyond 300 degrees Celsius, the stable Teflon begins to break down and releases polymer fumes. Continued exposure to these fumes can increase your health risks. Are we fostering another deadly wave of this health crisis?

DuPont subsequently became known as DowDuPont - the chemical giant formed by the merger of Dow Chemical and E.I. du Pont de Nemours and only two years later it changed again. In its place are new spinoffs Dow, DuPont de Nemours, and Corteva. It’s not easy to keep track!

How can We Take Action?

In light of the undeniable evidence and historical patterns of negligence exhibited by chemical companies like Dupont, it falls upon us, the consumer, to take proactive measures to safeguard ourselves and our communities.

We must conscientiously wield our purchasing power, choose products and materials that minimise our exposure to 'forever chemicals' like Teflon.

In relation to a summary around the utilisation of PFAS, Breast Cancer UK notes;

“PFAS can be found in non-stick cookware and takeaway food packaging (e.g. pizza boxes, compostable food boxes, and paper food bags). PFAS are known as ‘forever chemicals’ as they can last in the environment for long periods. They are also Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) that may adversely affect human health and are possibly linked to breast cancer. We suggest avoiding ‘non-stick’ cookware and finding safe toxic-free alternatives where possible, such as stainless steel or cast-iron pans.”

Following this advice not only reduces personal risk, but also sends a clear message to manufacturers about our collective demand for safer alternatives.

However, individual action is just the beginning. Spreading awareness and empowering others with knowledge about the risks associated with Teflon and other 'forever chemicals' amplifies our impact. The pursuit of a safer, healthier future, education, awareness, and collective action are our most potent tools. By sharing this page on Social Media, you are helping us change how humans affect our world...

If you haven’t seen Dark Waters yet and are interested in finding out more about this shocking case, you can stream Dark Waters on Netflix.

You can find out more about PFAs and the issue of Forever Chemicals from Breast Cancer UK.

Other Sources: