DuPont Under Fire for Teflon Fumes

Teflon may make a great plate of scrambled eggs, but it also may make for a kitchen full of toxic fumes. That is the issue behind a class action lawsuit against the maker of the non-stick coating, DuPont.

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The business news starts with a lawsuit that's sticking to DuPont.

Teflon, that new ubiquitous non-stick coating, has made cooking easier for generations of Americans. It's also made a lot of money for its inventor, DuPont.

Now, a class action lawsuit charges that Teflon has done something else; posed a health risk to consumers.

The company denies that, and NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

The case centers on what happens when you heat up a Teflon pan. DuPont says, nothing. David Boothe is global business manager for DuPont Teflon Products.

Mr. DAVID BOOTHE (Global Business Manager, DuPont Teflon Products): This cookware has been used safely by millions of people for over 40 years. And, DuPont believes strongly, and that's backed up not just by us but by peer-reviewed science and other government agencies, that it is safe.

SCHALCH: But attorneys for the plaintiffs in this case say Teflon coated cookware can give off toxic fumes and particles.

Alan Kluger, of the Miami Law firm, Kluger, Peretz, Kaplan, & Berlin, is lead counsel in the case. Kluger says, decades ago, DuPont asked volunteers to smoke cigarettes laced with Teflon.

Mr. ALAN KLUGER (Attorney, Kluger, Peretz, Kaplan, & Berlin): And these experiments found that fumes from the heated Teflon made people sick. These studies were begun in the 1950s.

SCHALCH: He says DuPont has also known for a long time that fumes from overheated Teflon can kill pet birds, and he says the company should have warned consumers that non-stick coatings can be hazardous.

Mr. KLUGER: if the consumer, after having knowledge of the risk, wants to use the product anyway, you know, they can do that. But it's not up to DuPont to make that decision.

SCHALCH: Kluger and the other attorneys are asking for $5,000,000,000. They want DuPont to issue warnings and refunds to consumers who want to exchange their non-stick cookware for something else. The dispute hinges, in part, on how you assume people will use their non-stick cookware.

Tim Kropp, a scientist at Environmental Working Group, says overheating it does carry some risk.

Dr. TIM KROPP (Toxicologist, Environmental Working Group): Non-stick cookware, when heated either under a broiler or on a stovetop at medium-high heat, can, within six minutes, get to temperatures that will release toxic particles and gasses.

SCHALCH: Especially if there's little or no food or liquid in the pan to absorb the heat.

But David Boothe at DuPont says this is extremely rare.

Mr. BOOTHE: The studies show that we don't start to see significant decomposition of that coating until about 660 degrees Fahrenheit, which is very hot. You're going to see smoke and fumes from cooking oil, fats, or butter well before that period of time. In fact, things are going to happen, like the handles are going to melt.

SCHALCH: Birds are so sensitive, he says, that fumes from an overheated pan can indeed kill them. People are more resilient, Boothe says.

Mr. BOOTHE: We only have, or know of, one documented case of apparent illness from exposure to fluoropolymer-coated cookware. This person apparently had some minor flu-like symptoms that disappeared in 24-hours.

SCHALCH: It's not clear whether breathing fumes from overheated non-stick cookware has any long-term consequences in humans. Tim Kropp, of Environmental Working Group, says that should, at least, be studied.

Still, cookware isn't Kropp's biggest worry. There is a Teflon-related chemical, called PFOA, found in most Americans' bodies, and listed by the EPA as a likely human carcinogen. Chemicals that might turn into PFOA are found in common household products.

Dr. KROPP: All the way from popcorn bag packaging to stain defender coatings for clothing to keep stains off of pants and make them easy to wash.

SCHALCH: PFOA is also used to manufacture non-stick cookware. It helps spread the Teflon coating evenly. But afterwards, it's removed; so scientists don't view cookware as the culprit.

Dr. KROPP: It's not the source of the chemicals that are found in our bodies. It's not the source of the chemicals that the EPA and the FDA are investigating.

SCHALCH: That hasn't deterred plaintiffs' attorneys. More than a dozen attorneys, representing about 70 clients, are gathering in Des Moines tomorrow for a pre-trial hearing Thursday.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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