TCS Daily

Slippery Teflon Charges Won't Stick

By Dr. Henry I. Miller & Gregory Conko - October 12, 2005 12:00 AM

The uncanny ability of President Ronald Reagan to deflect public criticism won him the nickname, "The Teflon President." Ironically, now it is Teflon itself that is facing the heat, as anti-chemical groups and trial attorneys have joined forces to cook up controversy over a product that has become one of America's most trusted consumer icons, as well as an integral part of our language, like Thermos and Kleenex.

The radical Environmental Working Group has charged that the billions of meals worldwide prepared every day on Teflon cookware are being contaminated with "Teflon toxins," and two Florida-based law firms have filed a $5 billion class-action suit in eight states against the manufacturer, DuPont, for "failing" to warn consumers about the product's alleged dangers.

But, like many product-safety scares these days, these charges are bogus. And that really fries us.

The truth is that an EPA advisory panel has recommended more testing of a chemical known as PFOA, which is used to make non-stick coatings and numerous other products, including those trademarked as Teflon. However, both Teflon and PFOA have been the subject of numerous studies, and there is not a shred of evidence that either poses a human health risk.

Only when tested at very high doses on mice and rats, has PFOA been shown to cause cancer, but under the EPA's current policy, such questionable animal data are enough to classify the chemical as a "likely human carcinogen." That high-dose test methodology is unreliable, though, because it is totally irrelevant to real world exposures. In fact, a wide spectrum of naturally occurring chemicals -- including many that are common constituents of our diet -- also cause cancer in lab animals at high doses. At the very low doses to which humans are actually exposed, most natural and synthetic chemicals are completely harmless.

Most compelling of all, PFOA is not present in the actual non-stick cookware coating -- including pots and pans coated with Teflon. A recent peer-reviewed published study confirmed that there is no detectable consumer exposure to PFOA through Teflon-coated cookware. Even the chronically over-cautious European Food Safety Administration recently dismissed the trumped up concerns and allowed the continued use of non-stick coatings in cookware. Studies in Denmark and China also have also confirmed Teflon's safety.

Finally, the risk-averse U.S. EPA has stated quite clearly that it "does not believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using any consumer or industrial related products" as a result of their ongoing investigation into PFOA.

That should be the end of the story. But the persuasive evidence against any injury caused by Teflon doesn't faze attorney Alan Kluger. "I don't have to prove that it causes cancer," he said. "I only have to prove that DuPont lied in a massive attempt to continue selling their product."

What's going on here?

The typical formula used in these big class action suits is to trump up some bogus health claim, demand a quick settlement, and then cut and run before the facts are weighed in litigation. The lawyers know they can count on people's fear of chemicals and their natural concern for the health of their families to generate public outrage. Teflon has been around for half a century and is ubiquitous.

As toxicologist and president of the American Council on Science and Health Dr. Elizabeth Whelan has pointed out, "Teflon, probably more than any industrial product, is the poster child of modern technology, one that has made our lives easier and more enjoyable." It is precisely the product's "stellar success story [that] makes it a very ripe target for those who spew chemical-phobia in their crusade to eliminate the tools modern industrial chemistry has given us -- pesticides, pharmaceuticals, food additives, and more."

Another factor in pursuing bogus claims is that the plaintiffs' lawyers know they can often count on a major corporation like DuPont to capitulate in order to protect its reputation. In 2004, for example, the company paid an $82 million out-of-court settlement to the residents of Parkersburg, West Virginia, who alleged that PFOA from a nearby DuPont plant had tainted their water supplies -- in spite of the lack of any supportive evidence. In fact, a University of Pennsylvania study examined neighbors of the Parkersburg claimants who used the same water source and found no harmful effects.

We hope that this time DuPont fights to the bitter end to expose this class action charade.

Lamentably, whether litigation is involved or not, activists commonly misrepresent environmental or public health risks. Undeterred by the facts, many self-styled public health advocacy organizations like the Environmental Working Group, Greenpeace, Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Union of Concerned Scientists know that to have an impact, their charges need not be true but merely plausible. The media -- whose motto is "if it bleeds, it leads" -- does the rest: "Are you eating cancer-causing chemicals in every meal? Details at 11!"

Also, it's hard for the public to shed a tear for the misfortunes of a corporate goliath like DuPont, the creator of the Teflon miracle and the owner of the trademark. The days of "Better Things for Better Living through Chemistry" -- DuPont's advertising slogan until 1981 -- are long gone, as chemicals are now looked upon with suspicion by many people. Moreover, big multinational companies of any kind are largely unappreciated, no matter how many jobs they create or lives they enrich.

Distortion and manipulation of science by self-styled consumer groups in pursuit of political agendas and by voracious plaintiffs' attorneys looking for the next big score erodes our society's capacity to innovate and prosper. It jeopardizes safe and beneficial products and harms manufacturers and their employees. In the absence of persuasive evidence vetted by experts, consumers should reject the attacks on Teflon, as well as on other essential products like vaccines, pesticides, medical drugs, and many others. The charges just won't stick.

Gregory Conko is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, was an FDA official from 1979-1994. Barron's selected their book, "The Frankenfood Myth," as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.


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