Teflon and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)
What are these substances? Where are they found?
Teflon® is a brand name for a man-made chemical known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). It has been in commercial use since the 1940s. It has a wide variety of applications because it is extremely stable (it doesn't react with other chemicals) and can provide an almost frictionless surface. Most people are familiar with it as a non-stick coating surface for pans and other cookware. It is also used in many other products, such as fabric protectors.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8, is another man-made chemical. It is used in the process of making Teflon and similar chemicals (known as fluorotelomers), although it is burned off during the process and is not present in significant amounts in the final products.
Do they cause cancer?
Teflon itself is not suspected to cause cancer. PFOA may be more of a health concern because it can stay in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time. It seems to be present at very low levels in just about everyone's blood. It's not clear how people are exposed to it, although it has been detected at low levels in some foods and drinking water systems and in household dust.
The possible effects of PFOA on cancer risk in humans are not completely understood. Studies in lab rodents have found exposure to PFOA increases the risk of certain tumors of the liver, testicles, mammary glands, and pancreas in these animals. But the results of these studies have not provided sufficient evidence for causing cancer in animals. So far, there is very little data about its ability to cause cancer in people.
What expert agencies say
Several agencies (national and international) study different substances in the environment to determine if they can cause cancer. (A substance that causes cancer or helps cancer grow is called a carcinogen.) The American Cancer Society looks to these organizations to evaluate the risks based on evidence from laboratory, animal, and human research studies.
At this time, these agencies have not formally evaluated whether PFOA can cause cancer.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), an electronic database that contains information on human health effects from exposure to various substances in the environment. The EPA has not officially classified PFOA as to its carcinogenicity.
In a draft (not final) report, the EPA's Scientific Advisory Board found that the evidence on PFOA, mainly from studies in lab animals, is best described as "suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity, but not sufficient to assess human carcinogenic potential." The board agreed that new evidence would be considered as it becomes available.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization (WHO). Its major goal is to identify causes of cancer. IARC has not yet reviewed PFOA or similar compounds regarding their ability to cause cancer, but it has labeled them as high priority for review within the next few years.
Do they cause other health problems?
The major health effect linked with Teflon is the potential release of dangerous fumes from coated pans that are overheated. These fumes can cause flu-like symptoms in humans (a condition known as polymer fume fever) and can be fatal to birds.
Some early studies have suggested that higher PFOA blood levels in humans may be linked with higher than normal cholesterol levels, thyroid disease, and reduced fertility, although further studies are needed to confirm these findings.
What is being done about them?
The long-term effects of PFOA and similar chemicals are largely unknown, but there is enough concern to prompt an attempt to phase out industrial emissions of them. Only a handful of companies use these chemicals.
In 2000, the 3M company agreed to phase out the use of PFOS, a chemical closely related to PFOA.
In early 2006, the EPA and the 8 manufacturers who use PFOA agreed to a "stewardship program." The goals are for the companies to reduce factory emissions and product content levels of PFOA by 95% by the year 2010, and to eliminate PFOA from emissions and product contents by 2015. The companies submit annual reports on their progress to the EPA.
PFOA (and the related chemical PFOS) have also been detected in some drinking water supplies. The EPA does not regulate the levels of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water at this time. However, in early 2009, the EPA released Provisional Health Advisories (PHAs) for PFOA and PFOS. These advisories are meant to reflect levels above which action should be taken to reduce exposure to these contaminants in drinking water. The PHA values are 0.4 µg/L (micrograms per liter) for PFOA and 0.2 µg/L for PFOS. These advisories are not legally enforceable federal standards and are subject to change as new information becomes available.
While the possible long-term health effects of PFOA are not known, the issue is currently receiving intensive study by the EPA and other agencies.
Should I take measures to protect myself, such as not using my Teflon-coated pans?
Other than the possible risk of fumes from an overheated pan, there are no known risks to humans from using Teflon-coated cookware. While PFOA is used in making Teflon, it is not present (or is present in extremely small amounts) in Teflon-coated products.
Because the routes by which people may be exposed to PFOA are not known, it is unclear what steps people might take to reduce their exposure. Currently, the EPA states:
"Consumer products made with fluoropolymers and fluorinated telomers, such as Teflon and other trademark products, are not PFOA. PFOA is used as a processing aid in the manufacture of fluoropolymers and can be also be produced by the breakdown of some fluorinated telomers. The information that EPA has available does not indicate that the routine use of consumer products poses a concern. At present, the EPA does not recommend any steps for consumers to take to reduce exposures to PFOA."
Because birds are very sensitive to fumes released by non-stick cookware, some organizations of pet bird owners recommend minimizing a bird's exposure to these fumes by keeping pet birds out of the kitchen or by increasing ventilation if non-stick cookware is used.
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following related information may also be helpful to you. These materials may be viewed on our web site or ordered from our toll-free number, at 1-800-227-2345.
National organizations and Web sites*
In addition to the American Cancer Society, other sources of information and support include:
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
Toll-free number: 1-800-422-6237 (1-800-4-CANCER)
Web site: www.cancer.gov
No matter who you are, we can help. Contact us anytime, day or night, for information and support. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. ToxFAQs for perfluoroalkyls. 2009. Accessed at www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts200.html on March 31, 2010.
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Top ten ways to keep your bird safe from kitchen dangers. Accessed at www.aspca.org/pet-care/small-pet-care/bird-kitchen-dangers.html on March 30, 2010.
Environmental Protection Agency. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and fluorinated telomers: frequent questions. 2010. Accessed at www.epa.gov/oppt/pfoa/pubs/faq.html on March 29, 2010.
Environmental Protection Agency. SAB Review of EPA's Draft Risk Assessment of Potential Human Health Effects Associated with PFOA and Its Salts. 2006. Accessed at www.epa.gov/sab/pdf/sab_06_006.pdf on March 31, 2010.
Fei C, McLaughlin JK, Lipworth L, Olsen J. Maternal levels of perfluorinated chemicals and subfecundity. Hum Reprod. 2009;24:1200−1205.
Melzer D, Rice N, Depledge MH, et al. Association between serum perfluoroctanoic acid (PFOA) and thyroid disease in the NHANES study. Environ Health Perspect. 2010 Jan 7. [Epub ahead of print]
Post GB, Louis JB, Cooper KR, et al. Occurrence and potential significance of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) detected in New Jersey public drinking water systems. Environ Sci Technol. 2009;43:4547−4554.
Steenland K, Fletcher T, Savitz DA. Epidemiologic evidence on the health effects of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Environ Health Perspect. 2010;118:1100−1108.
Steenland K, Tinker S, Frisbee S, et al. Association of perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate with serum lipids among adults living near a chemical plant. Am J Epidemiol. 2009;170:1268−1278.
Wells RE. Fatal toxicosis in pet birds caused by an overheated cooking pan lined with polytetrafluoroethylene. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1983;182:1248−1250.
Last Revised: 11/08/2010