Congresswoman Pat Schroeder was scrambling eggs, one day back in 1984, when she coined one of the most durable political metaphors of our time. Her 1984 description of Ronald Reagan as "the Teflon President" became instant vernacular, attaching itself to everyone from "Teflon Tony" Blair to "Teflon Don" John Gotti.
It is all the more ironic, then, that our favorite metaphor for bad press that won't stick comes from a product whose toxic legacy will stick around forever. Teflon, it turns out, gets its nonstick properties from a toxic, nearly indestructible chemical called pfoa, or perfluorooctanoic acid. Used in thousands of products from cookware to kids' pajamas to takeout coffee cups, pfoa is a likely human carcinogen, according to a science panel commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency. It shows up in dolphins off the Florida coast and polar bears in the Arctic; it is present, according to a range of studies, in the bloodstream of almost every American—and even in newborns (where it may be associated with decreased birth weight and head circumference). The nonprofit watchdog organization Environmental Working Group (ewg) calls pfoa and its close chemical relatives "the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man." And although DuPont, the nation's sole Teflon manufacturer, likes to chirp that its product makes "cleanup a breeze," it is now becoming apparent that cleansing ourselves of pfoa is nearly impossible.
DuPont has always known more about Teflon than it let on. Two years ago the epa fined the company $16.5 million—the largest administrative fine in the agency's history—for covering up decades' worth of studies indicating that pfoa could cause health problems such as cancer, birth defects, and liver damage. The company has faced a barrage of lawsuits and embarrassing studies as well as an ongoing criminal probe from the Department of Justice over its failure to report health problems among Teflon workers. One lawsuit accuses DuPont of fouling drinking water systems and contaminating its employees with pfoa. Yet it is still manufacturing and using pfoa, and unless the epa chooses to ban the chemical, DuPont will keep making it, unhindered, until 2015.
The Teflon era began in 1938, when a DuPont chemist experimenting with refrigerants stumbled upon what would turn out to be, as the company later boasted, "one of the world's slipperiest substances." DuPont registered the Teflon trademark in 1944, and the coating was soon put to work in the Manhattan Project's A-bomb effort. But like other wartime innovations, such as nylon and pesticides, Teflon found its true calling on the home front. By the 1960s, DuPont was producing Teflon for cookware and advertising it as "a housewife's best friend." Today, DuPont's annual worldwide revenues from Teflon and other products made with pfoa as a processing agent account for a full $1 billion of the company's total revenues of $29 billion.
Teflon is not actually the brand name of a pan; it's the name of the slippery stuff that DuPont sells to other companies. Marketers deploy the trademark as a near-mystic incantation, a mantra for warding off filth: Clorox Toilet Bowl Cleaner With Teflon® Surface Protector, Dockers Stain Defender™ With Teflon®, Blue Dolphin Sleep 'N Play layette set "protected with Teflon fabric protector." In one TV spot, an infant cries until Dad sets him down on a Stainmaster (with Advanced Teflon® Repel System) carpet, where baby, improbably, falls into blissful slumber.
Breathing in dust from Teflon-treated rugs or upholstery as they wear down is one way we may be ingesting pfoa. Food is another: Pizza-slice paper, microwave-popcorn bags, ice cream cartons, and other food packages are often lined with Zonyl, another DuPont brand. Technically, Zonyl does not contain pfoa, but it is made with fluorotelomer chemicals that break down into pfoa. Regardless of how it gets into our bodies, once there, pfoa stays—quietly accumulating in our tissues, for a lifetime.
Teflon is not the only nonstick, non-stain brand that has turned out to be stickier than advertised. Scotchgard and Gore-Tex, to name just two, are also made with pfoa or other perfluorochemicals (pfcs). Last year the epa hit the 3M corporation, maker of Scotchgard, with a $1.5 million penalty for failing to report pfoa and pfc health data. Chemicals similar to pfoa have recently turned up in water supplies of suburban Minneapolis and St. Paul, near 3M facilities.
Unlike DuPont, though, 3M no longer sells pfoa: In the late 1990s, when testing blood samples for a health study, the company found pfoa even in the "clean" samples from various U.S. blood banks that it had planned to use as controls. "They realized they were contaminating the entire population," says Richard Wiles, the Environmental Working Group's executive director. In 2000, 3M announced that it was discontinuing pfoa production.
When 3M got out, DuPont, which until then had bought its pfoa from 3M, jumped in. Now the company's bottom line depends on whether its product's mythic reputation—Teflon's own Teflon—remains intact.
So far, it seems to be holding. Nonstick pots and pans account for 70 percent of all cookware sold. "Amazingly enough, all the publicity has had no impact on sales," says Hugh Rushing, executive vice president of the Cookware Manufacturers' Association. "People read so much about the supposed dangers in the environment that they get a tin ear about it"—though sales of cast-iron skillets, touted as a safer alternative, have doubled in the last five years, in large part because of "the Teflon issue," according to cast-iron manufacturer Lodge.
In fact, nonstick pans are not a major source of exposure to pfoa, because almost all of the chemical is burned off during manufacture. Still, when overheated, Teflon cookware can release trace amounts of pfoa and 14 other gases and particles, including some proven toxins and carcinogens, according to the Environmental Working Group's review of 16 research studies over some 50 years. At 500 degrees, Teflon fumes can kill birds; at 660, they can cause the flulike "polymer fume fever" in humans. Even at normal cooking temperatures, two of four brands of frying pans tested in a study cosponsored by DuPont gave off trace amounts of gaseous pfoa and other perfluorated chemicals.
A $5 billion multistate class-action lawsuit representing millions of Teflon cookware owners alleges that DuPont has known for years that its coatings could turn toxic at temperatures commonly reached on the stove, but failed to tell consumers. DuPont's website recommends not heating Teflon above 500 degrees (so it doesn't "discolor or lose its nonstick quality") and advises that when overheated, "nonstick cookware can emit fumes that may be harmful to birds, as can any type of cookware preheated with cooking oil, fats, margarine and butter." But who knows how hot a pan gets, and who looks out for birds before fixing dinner? Even while researching this story, I left a nonstick skillet on the stove. The fumes smelled like fried computer, and I vowed not to do it again. But I also decided to go with the hazardous-waste flow, figuring, "We're all toxic dumps anyway." (ewg studies have found a "body burden" of 455 industrial pollutants, pesticides, and other chemicals in the bodies of ordinary Americans.) With toxic substances unavoidable, or at least key to convenience, we run our own self-interested cost-benefit analyses. I throw out the Teflon-coated Claiborne pants my mother-in-law sent my son, but I let him play on swing sets made of arsenic-treated wood because I don't want to face a tantrum.