Charges against Teflon don’t stick

The president of the American Council on Science and Health takes up dangerously overcooked health warnings.

Dr Elizabeth Whelan

Topics Politics

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Last week a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientific advisory panel expressed concern about the safety of a chemical, perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), which is used to make Teflon, the non-stick coating on everything from frying pans to clothing to pizza boxes.

The panel relied solely upon the fact that PFOA causes cancer in mice and rats when served up in high doses. Under the EPA’s definition of ‘cancer-causing agent’, this is enough to classify the chemical as a ‘likely human carcinogen’- even though (a) there is not a shred of evidence that either Teflon or PFOA poses a human cancer risk; and (b) a full spectrum of naturally occurring chemicals also cause cancer in lab animals.

Radical environmental groups immediately seized the opportunity to move in for the kill. On 29 June, Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group opined on the NBC Nightly News that PFOA ‘has now been determined to be a likely human carcinogen. That ranks up there with DDT, PCBs, dioxin as a very serous hazard. It needs to be banned’. (Apparently, Wiles is unaware that the regulated, approved use of the three much-maligned chemicals he cited has never made anyone sick.)

A ban on Teflon? Now that would be the ultimate environmentalist victory. Teflon, probably more than any industrial product, is the poster child of modern technology, one that has made our lives easier and more enjoyable.

Ever since DuPont’s Dr Roy J Plunkett accidentally discovered Teflon in his laboratory in 1938, it has proven to be an extremely useful substance. It was first used in machine and military applications in the 1940s – and dramatically changed cooking and cleanup in the 1960s when used as a nonstick surface for pots and pans. It is the success story of Teflon that makes it such a ripe target for those who spew chemical-phobia in their campaign to eliminate the tools that modern industrial chemistry has given us – pesticides, pharmaceuticals, food additives, and more.

I hope that the trumped-up charges against Teflon do not pan out, so we will still have access to the safe and useful products that contain it. But don’t count on it. Those in the environmental camp, who still tenaciously argue that a rodent is a little man, could insist that all such ‘carcinogens’ be purged no matter what the cost. Unless scientists emerge from their classrooms and laboratories and express their outrage that junk science is being used to set public policy, the EPA will continue to ‘protect’ us from cancer risks that do not exist – and will pass the high costs on to the public.

Dr Elizabeth Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health and editor of America’s War on ‘Carcinogens’: Reassessing the Use of Animal Tests in Predicting Human Cancer Risk.

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Topics Politics


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