Commentary

Claims Against Teflon Simply Don’t Stick

This article appeared on Townhall.com on September 26, 2005.
Teflon, the famous nonstick product, needs Teflon protection against junk science lawsuits. Even though the product is effective, inexpensive, and safe, trial attorneys are targeting Teflon’s maker as the next deep pocket to empty.

For anyone who cooks but doesn’t like scrubbing, Teflon is a wonder product. Before Teflon, washing a pan or pot was among the most disagreeable of tasks. Cleaning up is a very different task in today’s post-Teflon world.

There are even some unintended health and safety benefits from Teflon kichenware. You can cook using less fat, grease, or oil.

Doing so is better for your heart. There’s also less chance of fire. It’s a wonderful example of how a profit-minded company, in this case DuPont, came up with something that makes life easier, healthier, and safer — all at once.

But no good deed goes unpunished, at least in today’s legal system. In July attorneys filed a $5 billion class action lawsuit against DuPont over the alleged health effects of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.

There are 14 plaintiffs, though that’s just the start. “The class of potential plaintiffs could well contain almost every American that has purchased a pot or pan coated with DuPont’s nonstick coating,” explained attorney Alan Kluger.

The remedies demanded include replacement cooking utensils, “medical monitoring” of plaintiffs, research funding, and the ubiquitous warning label. There also would be ample fees for the two law firms involved.

Observes Kluger: “I don’t have to prove that it causes cancer. I only have to prove that DuPont lied in a massive attempt to continue selling their products.”

Actually, to collect he needs to prove that Teflon skillets harm people. And that is unlikely.

Many companies use PFOA to produce a wide variety of products, including auto fuel systems, clothes, computer chips, firefighting foam, phone cables, as well as Teflon. Despite such wide use for decades, there are no known cases of consumers suffering long-term harm. If using PFOA posed a danger, that many people using that many products for that many years should have yielded at least one victim.

Better grounded, though still uncertain, are concerns about the impact of PFOA’s release in the air or water. An Environmental Protection Agency advisory panel issued a draft report classifying PFOA as a likely carcinogen.

DuPont, however, disputes such a connection; a recent University of Pennsylvania study found no link between PFOA and several other diseases.

The health issue understandably concerns people who might have been exposed to high levels of PFOA, in one case in drinking water near a DuPont plant. But the chemical has no impact on consumers because studies have found no PFOA release when people cook.

Which is why the EPA, though concerned about the presence of PFOA in the environment, officially announced that it “does not believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using any consumer or industrial related products” because of PFOA. If cooking doesn’t cause the harmful PFOA escape of Teflon of pots or pans, there is no health risk.

That’s the conclusion of a peer-reviewed study earlier this year in the Environmental Science & Technology journal. Ten researchers looked at the use of PFOA in cookware, as well as carpets, cleaners, clothes, paints, and other products. They concluded that PFOA exposure “during consumer use of the articles evaluated in this study are not expected to cause adverse human health effects in infants, children, adolescents, adult residents or professionals, nor result in quantifiable levels” of the chemical in people’s blood.

There’s no harmful PFOA emission for Teflon products even if they are heated at a very high temperature or used after being scratched, the study found. Indeed, it’s more accurate to term PFOA a “processing aid” than an ingredient.

Scare-mongering has replaced rational thinking when it comes to many environmental issues. So it is with PFOA.

If inadvertently discharged into the air or water, it might pose a problem. But when used in making products, it is perfectly safe.

Hopefully, the courts will be able to tell the difference. Ultimately consumers will pay if junk science again runs amok in the courtroom.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.