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 of causing cancer.
PFOA has the potential to be more of a health concern because it can stay in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time. Studies have found that it is present at very low levels in just about everyone's blood in the United States. Higher levels have been found in the blood of community residents where local water supplies have been contaminated by PFOA. People exposed to PFOA in the workplace can have levels many thousands of times higher.
PFOA and some similar compounds can be found at low levels in some foods, drinking water, and in household dust. Although PFOA levels in drinking water are usually low, they can be higher in certain areas. For example, an area near a chemical plant in West Virginia had higher levels of PFOA in its water due to contamination. People can also be exposed to PFOA from ski wax and fabrics and carpeting that have been treated to be stain resistant. Non-stick cookware is not a significant source of exposure.
Studies in the lab
Studies in lab animals have found exposure to PFOA increases the risk of certain tumors of the liver, testicles, mammary glands, and pancreas in these animals. In general, well-conducted studies in animals do a good job of predicting which exposures cause cancer in people. But for PFOA, there are clear differences in how the bodies of lab animals and humans handle this chemical. Because of these differences, it isn’t clear that the way this chemical causes cancers in animals would also occur in humans.
Studies in humans
Some studies have looked at people affected by PFOA from the chemical plant in West Virginia (mentioned above). These studies have looked at both workers at the plant and community residents. The most recent study linked an increased risk of testicular cancer to PFOA exposure. The chance of having testicular cancer tended to increase as the level of exposure to PFOA increased. The study also showed a possible link to kidney cancer, but this increase in risk was small and could have been due to chance.
What expert agencies say
Several national and international agencies 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 examined the evidence on PFOA, mainly from studies in lab animals, and stated that there is "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 plans to review them sometime in 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 studies have suggested that higher than average PFOA blood levels in humans is linked to higher than normal cholesterol levels, thyroid disease, and reduced fertility. These effects were not seen in all studies, though, and many of them were not seen in studies of people with very high PFOA levels due to workplace exposure. For this reason, it isn’t clear what health effects can be expected from PFOA exposure.
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 manufacturing. In 2000, the 3M company agreed to phase out the use of PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid), a chemical closely related to PFOA, at all of its plants worldwide. PFOS is more toxic than PFOA, and people are exposed mainly in industrial settings.
While the possible long-term health effects of PFOA are not known, the issue is currently under study by the EPA and other agencies. In addition, 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, and the latest reports indicated a large reduction in use of these chemicals. The decreasing demand for PFOA has also led to many companies phasing out production.
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 in drinking water. These advisories recommend that actions should be taken to reduce exposure when contaminants go above a certain level in the drinking water – 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.
Studies show that blood levels of PFOA and some related chemicals have gone down since 2000.
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 website 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:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)
Toll-free number: 1-888-422-8737 (1-888-42-ATSDR)
ToxFAQs for perfluoroalkyls: www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tf.asp?id=1116&tid=237
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
Toll-free number: 1-800-422-6237 (1-800-4-CANCER)
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/toxfaqs/tf.asp?id=1116&tid=237 October 4, 2013.
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.
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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.
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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.
Trudel D, Horowitz L, Wormuth M, Scheringer M, Cousins IT, Hungerbühler K. Estimating consumer exposure to PFOS and PFOA. Risk Anal. 2008 Apr;28(2):251-69. Erratum in: Risk Anal. 2008 Jun;28(3):807.
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Last Revised: 11/06/2013