By Dave Andrews, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Environmental Working Group
Poking around the kitchen of our new house, Lena and I discovered a flat piece of synthetic something-or-other under the oven’s lower burner. Our landlord proudly explained that it was a Betty Crocker non-stick oven liner, a great labor-saving device.
Well, I’m all for avoiding oven-scrubbing. And, being a scientist, I’m naturally curious about how things work, exactly, so I pulled out the liner, stuck a thermometer in the oven and turned on the self-cleaning cycle. In a matter of moments, the needle had shot up past 600 degrees, the thermometer’s upper limit. The oven probably got much hotter.
Meanwhile, I took a hard look at the oven liner. What would have happened to it at 700 degrees?
It gets hot because it’s an oven.
The label wasn’t informative, so I went online. “PTFE-Coated Fiberglass,” the ads said. “Safe up to 500 degrees.”
That was all I needed to know. I was sure that anything half an inch from the glowing red burner would get hotter than 500 degrees, even in regular roasting and baking.
I also knew, from studies conducted by my colleagues at Environmental Working Group and other scientists, that PTFE would begin to fume gases so toxic they could kill a bird in a matter of moments.
Lena and I don’t have a pet parakeet. All energy goes to keeping up with our 15-month-old, Wyeth. Like all parents, we do our best to shield him from anything that has a chance of harming him.
That includes the chemical PFTE, which stands for polytetrafluoroethylene, the basis for DuPont’s “Teflon” brand non-stick coating and a member of the perfluorochemicals (PFCs) family.
Stain, grease and water-resistant coatings persist in the body.
Limiting Wyeth’s contact with PFCs is challenging, because, in addition to Teflon, these chemicals are in Scotchgard, Goretex, Stainmaster and other stain, water and grease-resistant coatings applied to textiles, carpets, food wraps and many other consumer products. Since members of the PFC family are notoriously persistent and bioaccumulative, nearly all Americans surveyed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention test positive for traces of the PFC family.
EWG’s landmark study, Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns, found several PFCs among 287 industrial chemicals and pollutants in the umbilical cord blood of 10 newborns.
Fertility problems linked to Teflon chemical family
These studies need much more confirmation, but they are troubling nonetheless.
The U.S. government does not regulate human exposure to PFCs, though we at EWG think it should move toward that goal.
Voluntary industry action against some PFCs
Under pressure from EWG and EPA, companies have taken voluntary action against some PFCs that raise the most serious health concerns. In 2000, 3M agreed to phase out perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS.) Dupont and seven more large makers of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), have agreed to a 95 percent reduction in emissions by next year and virtual elimination by 2015.
Other PFCs are still in consumer products.
While we are encouraged that the chemical industry has voluntary moved to reduce and eliminate production of the most notorious molecules used to make non-stick coatings, we remain concerned about the new replacements.
Lena and I would rather put up with a few carpet and sofa stains – well, a lot of stains – than have Wyeth crawling around on stuff that will stay in his body for decades, to what effect, we don’t know.
Spots, yes. Fumes no.
The oven liner – it’s going back to the landlord. We’ll scrub the oven the way EWG’s new Greener School Cleaners report recommends — with a stiff brush and baking soda.