PFOA | All Your Questions Answered
What is PFOA?
PFOA is short for Perfluorooctanoic acid, a synthetic used in a wide range of industrial chemical processes. Because it is hydrophobic (repels water) and lipophobic (repels fats) its uses range broadly as a “surfactant”. In short, PFOA is a chemical coating designed to make production easier.
Where Is It Found?
PFOA is everywhere; Popcorn bags, stain-resistant carpet treatment, water-repellent clothes, paper and cardboard packaging, ski wax, and foams used to fight fires. Because it is so ubiquitous, 98% of the US population has traces of it in their blood. You’re most likely to come in contact with PFOA in the air, water, and soil, all of which are runoff from the manufacturing processes.
To address these exposure levels, steps are being taken by various industries to eliminate use of PFOA, and in May of 2019 a UN Conference in Geneva voted unanimously to ban the chemical globally (with several exceptions).
PFOA vs PTFE — Is Your Cookware Safe to Use?
PTFE, Teflon, Non-stick; These are all names for the same product. PTFE is the abbreviated name of the chemical compound Polytetrafluoroethylene. Teflon, the brand name given to the first PTFE, is owned by DuPont, who discovered the compound in 1938. All products marketed as non-stick are likewise the same compound, PTFE.
Non-stick (PTFE) products can be manufactured without PFOA, as it is not a component of non-stickware itself. In fact, no cookware in your cabinets contains PFOA. According to Bill Walker of the Environmental Working Group, it burns off during the production process.
Why Is There a Ban?
Studies of water quality in manufacturing zones revealed countless health issues associated with PFOA, where the chemical leached into the water supply. The result was a settlement requiring DuPont and 7 other corporations to transition to a PFOA-free process, eliminating the major environmental risk factor associated with their line of Teflon products.
Links to Cancer?
The World Health Organization has classed PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” and studies are underway to evaluate the long term effects. So far, no studies have found conclusive evidence, but the FDA has discovered links to a host of medical issues, ranging from kidney cancer to high blood pressure. For cookware that has been certified PFOA-free, rest assured— cancer.org states that Teflon/non-stick products are not suspected of causing cancer.
How to Avoid PFOA
In the wake of the DuPont lawsuit that drew health issues with PFOA to light, the industry followed suit; many nonstick products are produced and marketed as PFOA-free.
Some consumers still worry whether Teflon and other nonstick pans are safe; When heated past 550° F, the compounds begin to break down, releasing gases into the air. This may result in flu-like symptoms, and can be fatal to pet birds, whose respiratory systems can’t regulate the toxin— much like the canary in a coal mine, many believe that if it’s unsafe for our aviary companions, its toxins are affecting us, too.
However, many experts agree a non-stick pan won’t exude enough toxins to harm a human. When you meant to only walk away for a minute and get a caustic whiff from the kitchen, just turn off the burner and let the surface cool before using. If the base of your nonstick pan begins to flake, don’t worry. It means it is time to replace it, but poses no threat if accidentally consumed. PTFE flakes will pass through the system without having time to absorb into your the bloodstream.
For a deeper dive into the safety range of nonstick equipment, check out Good Housekeeping’s article, where they tested a range of pans and asked experts to weigh in.