Trouble as you boil and bubble

There are over 8000 perfluorinated compounds manufactured today...
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Trouble as you boil and bubble

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Trouble as you boil and bubble

The Telegraph - July 5, 2010

Long-term exposure to non-stick cookware could present a health hazard, warns Saheli Mitra

So you have stocked your kitchen with those sleek, ultra-modern non-stick utensils that are lovely to look at and easy to clean. But did you ever stop to ponder that these new age pots and pans may come laced with a health hazard?

If a British study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal this March is to be believed, consumers need to think twice before throwing out the age-old iron or aluminium kadhai and switching to non-stick cookware.

The study, led by Tamara Galloway, professor of ecotoxicology, Exeter University, UK, reveals that people with high levels of perfluoro-octanoic acid (PFOA) in their blood have higher rates of thyroid disease. Those with the highest PFOA concentrations (above 5.7 nanograms per millilitre) were more than twice as likely to report thyroid disease than individuals with the lowest levels (below 4.0ng/ml).

The problem with non-stick utensils is that they are coated with this very chemical. “Perfluoro octanoic acid or PFOA like perfluoro-octane sulfonate (PFOS) are chemicals used in the production of non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpet coatings and fabric waterproofing treatments,” says toxicologist Dr Subhendu Gupta. “Persistence of PFOAs in the environment and their toxicity can have low-level chronic exposure effects on the liver and thyroid glands. They can also cause modulation of the sex hormone balance, developmental and immune system toxicity, hypolipidemia and reduced body weight,” he adds.

The problem with PFOA is that it does not readily break down and regular exposure leads to higher concentrations in the body. As city-based paediatrician Dr Santanu Ray points out, “Such concentrations can start off from the womb itself. It has already been proved that exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the womb can lead to reductions in the level of infant thyroid hormone that disrupts brain development and leads to lower IQ and behavioural changes in children. Like PCBs, which have now been banned, PFOAs can have similar ill effects,” he adds.

A 2007 study conducted on babies born at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, US, linked low birth weight of babies to the mothers’ exposure to PFOA — the higher the PFOA level, the lower was the baby’s birth weight.

Indian non-stick cookware manufacturers generally use a chemical called PTFE (poly tetra-fluro ethylene) or Teflon along with PFOA. These chemicals begin to degrade when cooking temperatures reach about 260 degrees centigrade and release fumes that can be carcinogenic and cause flu-like symptoms in humans (known medically as polymer fume fever). Studies reveal that at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, are released from these chemicals at high temperatures.

Of course, the manufacturers insist that these utensils do not present any health hazard at all. As a ttk (sold under the brand name of Prestige non-stick ware) official says, “Who cooks above a temperature of 300 degrees? There is very little chance of anyone cooking at these high temperatures and hence the ill-effects, if any, can never occur.”

Companies also say that consumers need to be careful about using non-stick cookware. Prestige products have a user manual that warns consumers not to use metal spoons on the product that might cause scratches and hence harm the Teflon coating. “If wrongly used, any product can have harmful effects,” says the official who did not wish to be named.

Some manufacturers insist that they do not use PFOA at all. Says Mukund Bhogale, managing director, Nirlep, “We follow European standards related to product manufacturing as well as maintaining the safety of our workforce. Our products are completely PFOA-free.”

However, consumer activist Bejon Misra is not ready to accept the argument of non-stick cookware manufacturers. “We all know how workers at DuPont, the world’s largest non-stick range manufacturer, developed polymer fume fever when exposed to PTFE manufacturing chemicals, especially PFOA. If, as the manufacturers claim, Teflon coating is truly safe, why has DuPont agreed to phase out the use of PFOAs in their non-stick products by 2015,” asks Misra.

Experts point out that the rising number of cases of thyroid malfunction among Indians could be a result of the possible link between PFOAs and their harmful effects on the thyroid glands. Calcutta-based physician Dr Somnath Bhadra says, “Thyroid hormone status in mammals is controlled by a very sensitive feedback mechanism wherein the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) stimulates the thyroid gland to synthesise thyroxine (T4), which is then converted to the biologically active triiodothyronine (T3). This mechanism is extremely sensitive and any deviation can cause severe damage as thyroid hormones control major psychological and growth activities.”

Galloway, the lead author of the British study, states, “Thyroid disease can also be caused by the body’s own immune system attacking the thyroid gland. Hence PFOA can have some effect on the immune system. It is even possible that the compounds could disrupt the binding of thyroid hormones in the blood or alter their metabolism in the liver.”

So then should we avoid non-stick cookware altogether and go back to traditional, labour-intensive utensils? Experts say the need of the hour is to make sure that these products carry proper labels detailing their composition and likely ill effects.

“The government should make it mandatory for the manufacturers to provide an advisory to consumers about the ill effects of non-stick cookware so that the consumer can make informed choices,” says Misra.

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