The nonstick industry seems to be putting us all in a sticky situation, according to results from a string of studies. Recent research has found links between perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and female infertility, low sperm count, and even high cholesterol. Now, a new study that will appear in this month's Environmental Health Perspectives journal has associated exposure to PFOA—a chemical commonly used in nonstick, stain-repellent, or waterproof consumer products—with thyroid disease. "These results highlight a real need for further research into the human health effects of low-level exposures to environmental chemicals like PFOA that are ubiquitous in the environment and in people's homes," says lead study author Tamara Galloway, PhD, professor of ecotoxicology at the University of Exeter School of Biosciences. "We need to know what they are doing.”
British researchers used nearly 4,000 samples taken through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's nationally representative National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which tests blood and urine levels for various chemical contaminants. Running the numbers, they discovered that people with higher concentrations of PFOA in their blood were more likely to report a history of thyroid disease. (To determine thyroid disease, participants recalled whether they were diagnosed with a thyroid disorder, and were asked if they still took medication for a thyroid problem.) In the latest study, individuals with the highest 25 percent of PFOA concentrations in the blood were more than twice as likely to report being on medication for current thyroid disease as the people with the lowest 50 percent of PFOA concentrations.
The thyroid gland is like your body's control center, regulating everything from heart rate to body temperature and supporting reproduction, mental health, digestion, and metabolism. PFOA is listed as a likely carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and persists in the environment, and in your body, indefinitely. There are no current restrictions on the use of PFOA in consumer products. The chemical is used to repel heat, water, grease, and stains, and is used extensively in cookware and in flame-resistant and waterproof clothing.
PFOA is released when fast-food wrappers and stain-resistant carpets, fabrics, and paints break down. Chemical manufacturer DuPont uses PFOA in nonstick Teflon, but says the chemical is not present in the finished product. However, even studies done by DuPont have found that Teflon and similar nonstick services emit six toxic gases under high heat. Environmental Working Group's testing found has found that some nonstick surfaces break down under just medium heat (325 degrees). These heated nonstick surface fumes have been known for years to kill pet birds, according to the ASPCA. Perhaps you're familiar with the expression, "canary in a coal mine?"
Here's how to your reduce exposure to PFOA:
Phase out nonstick. To create a more ecofriendly kitchen, one of the top things you can do is phase out Teflon and other nonstick cookware, and replace it with cast iron or stainless steel. If you do have nonstick that isn't scratched, you can still use it until it's time to replace it, just cook with it using low heat. Once you're ready for new cookware, choose a ceramic or other nonchemical nonstick surface for those times when you just can't cook without a nonstick pan.
Avoid the fast-food lane. Need another reason to avoid unhealthy fast food? A Canadian study found that people's greatest exposure to PFOA is from greasy fast-food wrappers. In fact, egg breakfast sandwiches boasted the highest levels. Pizza boxes have also been shown to have a chemical nonstick coating, so cutting back on take-out pizza may help you avoid PFOA.
Choose natural materials without stain-guard claims. Favor hardwood floors over carpeting coated with stain-repelling chemicals. When you're looking for furniture, opt for natural materials without a stain-repellent finish.
Make old-school popcorn. Microwave-popcorn bags are often coated with nonstick chemicals. To save money and avoid exposure to nasty chemicals, microwave ordinary popcorn kernels in plain paper bags for pennies a serving.