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Nora Ephron is a Threat To Your Health
June 14, 2006
Trevor Butterworth
F amous author blogs overcooked baloney on Teflon

The risks from Teflon have been debated ad nauseum by scientists and regulators – and even lawyers – over the past year. There is a rich trove of scientific literature, including reams of risk analysis from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) - and none of it reaches the conclusion that you are at risk from eating food cooked in Teflon pots and pans.

But even though Nora Ephron has clearly read none of this literature, the magical effortlessness of blogging allows her to make the following, ludicrous claim over at the Huffington Post:

“I feel sad about Teflon.

It was great while it lasted.

Now it turns out to be bad for you.

Or, put more exactly, now it turns out that a chemical that's released when you heat up Teflon is in everyone's blood stream -- and probably causes cancer and birth defects.”

The chemical she refers to is PFOA (perfluorootanoic acid) a precursor chemical to Teflon which effectively “glues” the non-stick coating to a pan or pot

Among the many certainties in this health scare is that PFOA is not released when you heat up a frying pan without oil. Why? Most of the PFOA is incinerated in the process of sticking the Telfon layer to the pan. What remains is so difficult to extract, you would need to EAT THE FRYING PAN.

Please, don’t try this at home.

Ms. Ephron is convinced that “PFOA is the bad guy here.” Though why she is convinced doesn’t make for much of a convincing argument. She’s heard “rumors” about Telfon “for a long time.” But those rumors became “real” when she read that “ Marian Burros, the incontrovertible food writer for the New York Times, announced that she had moved her Teflon pans to her basement.”

Marion Burros may well be an “incontrovertible food writer” (she clearly does write about food), but she is not a toxicologist – and the fact that she has moved her Teflon-coated cookware to her basement is not an incontrovertible reason for you to do the same.

Besides non-stick cookware, some environmental groups have also argued that PFOA seeps out from the flurotelomer coatings on popcorn bags and other food coverings. But this is not what the Food and Drug Administration found when it examined this potential risk. As the FDA noted in a letter made available to the media in November 2005:

“…it should be noted that this flurotelomer migration from coated paper, as reported in this article [Begley, T., et al Food Additives and Contaminants 22 (10) 2005] occurs in the form of telomer-based compounds themselves and should not be equated with PFOA exposure.”

There is no scientific evidence that flurotelomers can break down into PFOA.

Nevertheless, it is strange that PFOA is present in the blood stream of most people in the world – along, apparently, with Polar bears. Obviously, Polar bears don’t cook, so the logic of this situation suggests that we have been exposed to PFOA through environmental emissions; but we can’t be sure. So the important question is whether we really are at risk from exposure to PFOA.

Ms. Ephron believes that PFOA “probably causes cancer and birth defects.” And this is something you might believe too if you didn’t read the actual scientific literature.

First off, no study has ever shown people suffering adverse health effects from exposure to PFOA. The only evidence of toxicity is from rat studies.

One of these studies showed that ten percent of rats dosed with PFOA levels at 125 parts per million developed a type of tumor in the liver produced by peroxisome proliferation. This exposure level is 25,000 times higher than the level of PFOA currently found in Americans, which is five parts per billion.

In a presentation at a conference in August 2005, Dr. Jennifer Seed of the EPA’s Risk Assessment Division Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics noted in her overview of the EPA’s assessment of PFOA that, “The overall weight of evidence suggests that the MOA [mode of action] for liver tumors is unlikely to occur in humans, taking kinetics and dynamic factors into account.”

Thus the EPA saw only “suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity.” Seed also noted that “Studies have not shown any effects directly associated with PFOA exposure."

When the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) examined the draft report, it recommended (although based on a split decision) that PFOA should be upgraded to a “likely” human carcinogen. This was based on the possibility that there might be other modes of action that could cause liver tumors – even though there is no evidence to suggest that there are. The irony in the SAB’s argument that PFOA should be considered a “likely” carcinogen is that there is no data to actually put a quantitative value on how likely. In other words, the risk is hypothetical. (See STATS “How to evaluate health risks” for more on the problems of extrapolating animal dosing to humans.)

As for PFOA and birth defects, this allegation stems from CBS News trying to put a dramatic human face on a study from Johns Hopkins back in February of this year:

“Sue Bailey believes PFOA is why her son has severe facial defects. He was born in the 1980s, when she worked around PFOA chemicals at Dupont and she remembers a Dupont doctor calling her shortly after the birth.

'He was asking all these questions, wanting to know what the deformity was,' Bailey told Attkisson. 'I asked him why he needed to know that and he told me that any time there was a birth defect or a deformity they had to know all about it because it had to be reported. But they did not report it.'"

One case of deformity from one person (among thousands) who worked with PFOA is an association that is scientifically meaningless, especially when there isn't a single health study that has ever shown any such association. This was tabloid journalism at its worst.

Citizen journalists and bloggers have, of course, promoted themselves as the antidote to such mindless, formulaic and misleading innuendo that passes for reporting; but what can one say of a blogger that takes this garbage as fact?

For an explanation on why DuPont were fined by the EPA, see
Did EPA Move the Goalposts to Fine DuPont?


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