Dupont and 3M: Teflon Replacement as Toxic as the Original?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, have been pressuring manufacturers like Dupont (DD – $47.21) and 3M (MMM – $75.22, formerly Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) for years to replace their toxic coatings containing PFOAs (a type of PFC) with more environmentally-friendly substitutes.

Dupont and 3M: Teflon Replacement as Toxic as the Original?
Photo: massdistraction, Creative Commons, Flickr

Dupont has responded by creating C6, a clone of C8 containing a few less carbon atoms. 3M dealt with the issue by creating a private company operating out of China (where restrictions are negligible) and importing its perfluorocarbons in the form of cheaper merchandise. Both deserve a round of applause – preferably the sound of one hand clapping – for their continuing efforts to poison the earth.

First, a little history on perfluorocarbons, or PFCs – perhaps the most lethal chemicals ever invented by a human, and so persistent in the environment that their effects will be felt long after humans are gone, since they are completely resistant to biodegradation.

Of course, no one knew this when, in 1949, Dupont introduced Teflon, the non-stick pan coating. Nor did anyone have an inkling of the dangers when, in 1956, 3M introduced Scotchguard, a fabric protector that repels water. In 1962, before the problems associated with PFCs began to be noticed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, approved Teflon and, in 1967, it also approved Zonyl – a coating used on food containers to prevent the spread of grease and fluids. Since then, PFCs have been found in 98 percent of the population (in blood and other body fluids), as well as in most denizens of the natural world, including mink, dolphins, bears and fish.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1968 when, for the first time, elevated levels of fluoride were found in human blood that researchers became concerned. These findings so exceeded the parameters of what would be expected merely by fluoridating the water that some investigators began to dig deeper. Adding fluoride to water in the U.S. started in 1945, ostensibly to help prevent tooth decay, and more than half of all public water utilities have since subscribed to the practice. Today, both utilities and consumers are beginning to rethink that decision.

Even then, it wasn’t until the turn of the century, or about 2005, that agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, began to deduce, from their research, that not only were excessive amounts of fluorochemicals making their way into the environment, but that these PFCs were causing a wide range of human health problems, including developmental disabilities, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, impaired fetal development, a lowering of male reproductive hormones, and significant effects on the thyroid gland and immune system, as well as potential links to the rise in prostate cancers. Since not all water supplies are fluoridated, disease hotspots (like W. Virginia, site of the Dupont plant, and Minnesota, 3M’s home town) began pointing to some other source of contamination.

Many of the PFOAs in the environment are now known to be the result of unreported releases, or spills by these two manufacturers. These releases should have been reported under TRI – toxic release inventory – protocols, but both Dupont and 3M have historically resisted, or lied about, releases, resulting in both class action lawsuits (W. Virginia vs. Dupont, 2001) and EPA administrative actions against Dupont in 2004.

In 2005, backed into the proverbial wall, Dupont et al agreed to phase out PFOAs by 2015 and find more environmentally friendly substitutes. What Dupont came up with is C6, another perfluorocarbon. The fact is C6 is C8 less two carbon atoms, and is identical in toxicity and risk factors, no matter what the manufacturers say.

From 2005 to 2007, the FDA approved eight of these new fluorochemicals without engaging in any research to determine their toxic potential or the chemical residues that result when heated. At least no record of research has been made public. In 2007-08, the FDA approved two new C8 substitutes, and Dupont plans to release its proprietary formulation for packaging products in 2009.

The EPA says its hands are tied, since it has no authority to verify if C8 is being phased out or not, and the offending companies hide the details as confidential information in much the same way they shelter “proprietary” ingredients that may prove more dangerous than the originals.

Most important, both Dupont and 3M have manufacturing operations in China that allow them to circumvent TRI reporting requirements and U.S. manufacturing standards. The 3M division in China is also a private company, with all the privileges and exemptions a private company enjoys, both in the U.S. and abroad.

An industry representative has called C6, or PFHxA, a result of "green chemistry" whose breakdown products are much less toxic and persistent in the environment. There is, unfortunately, no scientific evidence or clinical research to back up this claim. A scientist with the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, insists that calling C6 “green” is like saying driving a car at 150 miles per hour makes it safer than driving it at 200 miles per hour.

I agree, but prefer to quote the French philosopher, Alphonse Karr: "The more things change, the more they remain the same." In any case, I wouldn’t bet the farm, or my life, on any of the new Teflon pans coming out of China.