3 Ways to Reduce the Health Risks of Nonstick Chemical PFOA

The chemical in Teflon is linked to high cholesterol in kids.

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Children exposed to a chemical used to make nonstick pans, anti-stain fabric coatings, and microwave popcorn bags have higher levels of bad cholesterol than kids who haven't been exposed, according to new research that casts further suspicion on these common products.

The fluorine-based nonstick chemical PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, was developed by the company DuPont more than 50 years ago and is what makes Teflon and other nonstick pans so slippery. But scientists have since become concerned that PFOA contributes to long-term health problems. A study published today in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that children and teenagers with PFOA in their blood serum had higher total cholesterol levels and higher levels of LDL, the "bad" cholesterol, than children who were not exposed. (The study wasn't designed to show causation, so it doesn't mean that PFOA is necessarily the culprit.)

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In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency launched a program aimed at reducing the use of PFOA by 95 percent in 2010 and eliminating it altogether by 2015. Still, the chemical persists in people's bodies and in the environment for years, binding to proteins in the liver and blood. Given that, and the uncertainty about the long-term health effects of PFOA exposure, it makes sense to consider how to reduce unnecessary contact with the chemical at home. Here are three suggestions:

  • Use stainless steel or cast-iron pans instead of nonstick. They will be almost as easy to clean up, especially if you warm them up first and apply a drizzle of oil.
  • Don't buy furniture or carpets with stain-repellent finishes, and turn down offers to have stain-repellent coatings applied to home furnishings when you buy them.
  • Cook popcorn on the stove the old-fashioned way, rather than in microwaveable bags. Some fast-food carryout bags are also coated with PFOAs to prevent grease from soaking through.
  • Cooking nonstick does make for simpler cleanup, but I'm starting to think that a few extra minutes of scrubbing would be worth one less worry about a common but suspect chemical.