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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, and an integral part of our language, like Thermos and Kleenex.
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Like many product-safety scares these days, the concerns that have been voiced about Teflon are bogus. Charges by the radical Environmental Working Group and their friends at the plaintiffs' bar that the billions of meals worldwide prepared every day on Teflon cookware are being contaminated with "Teflon toxins" are baseless.
That really fries me.
The truth is that an EPA advisory panel expressed concern about the safety of a chemical, PFOA, used to make non-stick coatings used on cookware and numerous other products, including those trademarked as Teflon. However, no human health effects are known to be caused by PFOA; the panel's concerns were based on the fact that PFOA causes cancer in mice and rats when administered in huge doses -- methodology that is under increasing disrepute.
Under the EPA's current definition of "cancer-causing agent," however, questionable animal data are enough to classify the chemical as a "likely human carcinogen" -- although there is not a shred of evidence that either Teflon or PFOA poses a human cancer risk. 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.
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, and even the chronically over-cautious European Food Safety Administration earlier this month dismissed the trumped up concerns and allowed the continued use of non-stick coatings in cookware. Studies in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Denmark and China also have confirmed Teflon's safety.
Finally, even the highly 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.
What is going on here? According to Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, a toxicologist and president of the American Council on Science and Health, "Teflon, probably more than any industrial product, is the poster child of modern technology, one that has made our lives easier and more enjoyable," and 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."
Never distracted by the facts, the strategy of 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 realize that 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 10!"
Of course, 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; 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 PR-savvy consumer groups in pursuit of political agendas erodes our society's capacity to innovate and prosper. In the absence of persuasive evidence vetted by experts, don't buy the attacks on vaccines, pesticides and other beleaguered consumer products. They just won't stick.