Toxic Teflon: How a Deadly Chemical Evaded Regulation and Ended Up inside 99.7% of Us

There is a prevailing sentiment among well-meaning people who don’t want to be unduly influenced by alarmists and worrywarts: if something were truly dangerous, they wouldn’t be allowed to sell it. Unfortunately, this logical line of thinking has been disproven time and again as a result of our broken regulatory system. The story of Toxic Teflon, as recently laid out in The Intercept’s three-part series, is a horrifying illustration of this fact. 

DuPont Suspected Teflon Harmful for Decades

PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic Acid), also known as C8, is an essential ingredient in Teflon (first introduced in 1946). DuPont is by far the leader in PFOA use and emissions in the U.S. Due to recent court battles many internal documents from DuPont have been uncovered, including “write-ups of experiments on rats, dogs, and rabbits showing that C8 was associated with a wide range of health problems that sometimes killed the lab animals…[and] hundreds of internal communications revealing that DuPont employees for many years suspected that C8 was harmful and yet continued to use it, putting the company’s workers and the people who lived near its plants at risk” (source 1).

In the 1980s, even as DuPont transferred its female workers out of Teflon (while tracking birth defects of babies born to workers exposed to PFOA while pregnant), and quietly monitored the spread of PFOA into local water supplies, DuPont increased its use and emission of PFOA. As The Intercept reported, “If they did decide to reduce emissions or stop using the chemical altogether, they still couldn’t undo the years of damage already done. As the [1984] meeting summary noted, ‘We are already liable for the past 32 years of operation’” (source 1). According to a 2007 study by Dennis Paustenbach published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, “between 1951 and 2003 the West Virginia plant eventually spread nearly 2.5 million pounds of the chemical” into the air and water surrounding its plant, with additional amounts spread around its New Jersey plant as well (source 1). PFOA waste was released into the air, buried in barrels in unlined landfills and along river banks, and dumped into the ocean.

PFOA (C8) Linked to a Wide Range of Negative Health Effects

Recent studies have tied PFOA to "an incredible range of health effects, including ovarian cancer; prostate cancer; lymphoma; reduced fertility; arthritis; hyperactivity and altered immune responses in children; and hypotonia, or 'floppiness,' in infants" (source 2). In 2011 and 2012, after seven years of research, a panel of scientists found
that C8 was "more likely than not" linked to ulcerative colitis… as well as to high cholesterol; pregnancy-induced hypertension; thyroid disease; testicular cancer; and kidney cancer. The scientists’ findings, published in more than three dozen peer-reviewed articles, were striking, because the chemical’s effects were so widespread throughout the body and because even very low exposure levels were associated with health effects. (source 1)

PFOA Is Everywhere and in Everyone

When you think of Teflon, you probably think of nonstick bakeware and cookware. But PFOA (or C8) was not only used in nonstick kitchen products. PFOA was used in a dizzying variety of other products as well, “including Gore-Tex and other waterproof clothing; coatings for eye glasses and tennis rackets; stain-proof coatings for carpets and furniture; fire-fighting foam; fast food wrappers; microwave popcorn bags; bicycle lubricants; satellite components; ski wax; communications cables; and pizza boxes” (source 1). The EPA’s own research has “shown that consumer products are in fact a source of C8 exposure” (source 3).

Whether through exposure through water, air, or consumer products, the fact is that PFOA is now inside all of us. According to a 2007 CDC analysis, PFOA is “in the blood of 99.7% of Americans… as well as in newborn human babies, breast milk, and umbilical cord blood” (source 1). Scientists have documented the presence of PFOA “in a wide range of wildlife, including Loggerhead sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, harbor seals, polar bears, caribou, walruses, bald eagles, lions, tigers, and arctic birds” (source 1). EPA testing detected PFOA in 94 public water systems in 27 states, sources of drinking water to more than 6.5 million people (source 4). Even more depressing, PFOA never breaks down. It is so chemically stable that scientists expect it to outlast humans on the planet.

Regulatory System Is Broken

The tale of “How DuPont Slipped Past the EPA” for decades is a sobering look into our dysfunctional regulatory system. To this day, there is still no national standard for PFOA contamination in drinking water. As The Intercept series notes: 
This deadly chemical that DuPont continued to use well after it knew it was linked to health problems is now practically everywhere...
In some ways, C8 [or PFOA] already is the tobacco of the chemical industry — a substance whose health effects were the subject of a decades-long corporate cover-up...And, like tobacco, C8 is a symbol of how difficult it is to hold companies responsible, even when mounting scientific evidence links their products to cancer and other diseases. (source 1)

The Toxic Treadmill Continues

As DuPont and others faced lawsuits and increased regulatory scrutiny, they opted for a “voluntary" (read "unenforceable") phase out of PFOA in 2005 (the terms of which DuPont has still not fulfilled). So what’s in all those non-stick, water-resistant, stain-resistant products currently on store shelves, you might be wondering? DuPont has since rolled out its “Capstone” line of surfactants and repellants (these are now the property of a company spun-off  from DuPont called Chemours). An international group of scientists and environmental advocates have already sounded the alarm about these replacement chemicals, noting that they are environmentally persistent (just like PFOA) and may need to be used in larger quantities in order to achieve the same performance as PFOA. Some of these novel “fluorochemicals” have already been approved by the FDA for use in food packaging. (source 3)

Does What I Do Matter?

In the face of this kind of information, it is easy to feel helpless. The truth is, it took me weeks to get through these articles. I would start one, and feel so upset and overwhelmed that I would stop reading until I could face it again. Perhaps most disheartening to me is that fact that PFOA and other synthetic industrial chemicals (like brominated and chlorinated flame retardants and PCBs) will be around forever. However, I take the same stance with PFOA that I do with all other toxic chemicals I learn about. I cannot prevent my family’s exposure completely. But what I can do is: 
The most important one is to support meaningful chemical reform. I recommend subscribing to updates from nonprofits such as Safer Chemicals Healthy Families (specifically focused on toxic chemical reform) or Environmental Working Group (non-profit watch dog on health and environmental issues) among others. When they ask you to sign a petition, sign it and share it.

But I also believe in minimizing my family’s exposure to PFOA (as well as the novel “fluorochemicals” that have replaced PFOAs in consumer products) whenever possible. By refusing to buy or use these products, I am also refusing to support these companies and protesting the use of their untested and/ or toxic chemicals. Learn more about how to do this in my follow-up post on toxic Teflon: 10 Ways to Minimize Your Family's Exposure to Toxic Teflon (and Its Toxic Cousins).

Sources and Further Reading

Related Posts

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photo credit (top of post): Spilling wine via photopin (license)


  1. Yikes, it sure is a toxic treadmill. I'm pretty sure I own some Gore-Tex rain gear and I'm wondering about the coating on my eyeglasses. Reform is overdue!

  2. Ugh. They need to come up with some kind of legislation that allows for retroactive "punishments" so that they can't get away with this stuff...financially. You harm the public, and you knew you would, you need to be put out of business.

  3. Thanks for this thorough review of teflon. It's pretty simple for people to shift to safer cookware, but they forget about it. Your post helps keep it on the front burner (no pun intended).


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