THURSDAY, Feb. 23, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- You could almost hear a resounding clank across America this month as thousands of health-conscious cooks tossed out their Teflon non-stick cookware, following the news it might emit a suspected carcinogen.
But there may be hope for all those once-beloved, now-beleaguered pots and pans.
So says George B. Corcoran, a noted toxicologist and chairman of the department of pharmaceutical sciences at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Corcoran is a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advisory committee that issued its report labeling the compound -- perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) -- a "likely carcinogen" earlier this month. It was that announcement, along with recent EPA and industry moves to eliminate PFOA from Teflon and other stain-resistant coatings, that sent the issue from the frying pan straight into the media firestorm.
But Corcoran said there was no need to panic.
"Do I still use Teflon cookware, even though I've been on this panel for over a year and a half now?" he said. "The answer is: Yes."
According to Corcoran and other experts, the evidence for PFOA-related harm from everyday cooking remains slim. "My sense is that we [scientists] are being prudent in reducing further exposure, because we just don't know what the bottom line is yet," he said.
For its part, the EPA on its Web site says that, because of "scientific uncertainties at the present time, EPA does not believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using any consumer or industrial related products that contain PFOA."
PFOA is what industrial chemists call an "intermediate chemical" -- something produced during the manufacturing process, but not necessarily present in the finished product, or present in only small amounts.
In fact, another EPA advisory panel member, James E. Klaunig, a professor of toxicology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, said, "My understanding from experience with the PFOA studies is that once the Teflon is produced as a coating, the PFOA is no longer available chemically. Thus it can not leach from the Teflon."
That statement is echoed by French cookware maker T-FAL. On their Web site, the company explains that PFOA is a breakdown product of polytetrafluoroethylene, an ingredient in non-stick coatings. As part of the manufacturing process, the company "cures" T-FAL pots and pans at very high heat (572 degrees Fahrenheit) which they say eliminates PFOA from the finished product. The result: "T-FAL non-stick coatings DO NOT contain PFOA," according to the company.
Experts note, as well, that trace residues of PFOA in cookware would only escape at very high heat -- although pinning down that heat threshold is tricky. While T-FAL cites a threshold of 752 degrees F, experts elsewhere tend to place it at about 600 degrees F. Experts at the Washington-based Environmental Working Group -- which has lobbied hard to ban PFOA -- note that a preheated pan placed on high heat can reach over 600 F in two to five minutes.
Corcoran said that even though he's holding on to his non-stick cookware, he does tend to cook at somewhat lower temperatures now.
Numerous animal studies have suggested that PFOA, which is also used in the manufacture of fast-food paper containers, stain-resistant fabric coatings, and other products, can boost liver toxicity and raise risks for liver, pancreatic and thymus cancers.
Studies in humans have so far been largely restricted to workers exposed to high levels of PFOA in their environment. "These workers are exposed to a range of other things, of course, so interpreting the data in those studies is extraordinarily difficult," Corcoran said.
However, "a big concern is that PFOA-related substances tend to have long half-lives in the body," explained Kendall Wallace, president of the Society of Toxicology and a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, in Duluth.
That's important, he added, because most non-epidemiological studies done so far have involved only short-term exposures in animals.
"That may or may not reflect what might happen in a real-life system, where you or I might get low doses [that accumulate] over months, years or decades," Wallace said. "Time won't allow us to do those studies, of course."
The bottom line, according to Wallace, is that actual human exposures from everyday use of cookware or other products remains "a big question mark." He believes consumers need to follow the data as it emerges and make up their own minds on the issue. As scientists, he said, "we try and take a very conservative approach and try and limit any unanticipated health risks."
For those still contemplating a switch away from Teflon, Corcoran noted that alternatives may have risks, too.
"We're talking in my house about pulling out all of our well-aged cast-iron skillets," he noted. "But you get iron coming off of those, and scientists know that iron stimulates free-radical production in your body. So, who knows -- maybe that higher load of iron is more dangerous than what we're now getting off of Teflon."
Head to the EPA for more on PFOA.