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There are concerns that chemicals called perfluorinated carboxylic acids or PFCAs, used in non-stick cookware, are getting into food and causing health issues. The chemicals are released when cookware coated with non-stick materials such as Teflon™ is heated to high temperatures. Research has linked two of these chemicals, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, or C8) and PFOS (perfluoroctane sulphonate) with medical conditions, including thyroid disorders, cardiovascular disease and arthritis.
PFOA and thyroid disorders
In 2010 researchers in Great Britain used blood samples from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which covered the whole of the US. They found that individuals with the highest concentration of PFOA in the blood were more likely to have a thyroid disorder, although which kind of thyroid condition i.e. over- or under-active thyroid, was not identified. It is also not known whether thyroid conditions lead individuals to handle PFOA differently so it accumulates.
PFOA and heart and blood vessel disease
A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2012 linked cardiovascular disease (CVD or heart disease), peripheral arterial disease (PAD) and high levels of PFOA in the blood. The association remained after allowing for the effects of age, sex, race/ethnicity, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol levels. Those with the highest levels of PFOA were at twice the risk of developing heart disease, compared to those with lower levels.
PFOA and osteoarthritis
A US study found a link between PFOA and PFOS levels and arthritis. It was found that women in the highest quarter for PFOA levels, had twice the risk of having osteoarthritis, compared to those in the lowest quarter for PFOA exposure. Interestingly, the same risk was not found in men.
Does PFOA definitely cause illness?
Nobody knows the answer to that at the moment. The tricky question is what scientists call causality, meaning that something definitely causes an event or illness. An association, relationship or link doesnotprove that a substance causes an illness. (For example in a group of bald men it might be found that a high percentage drink alcohol, but this cannot be assumed to mean that drinking alcohol causes baldness!). None of the studies showing a link between PFOA or PFOS and health disorders has been able to conclude that one causes the other. These are some of the comments the researchers have made:
‘..... the association between reported thyroid disease and PFOA exposure should be considered with caution.’
‘Our results contribute to the emerging data on health effects of PFCs (perfluoroalkyl chemicals), suggesting for the first time that PFOA exposure is potentially related to CVD and PAD. However, owing to the cross-sectional nature of the present study, we cannot conclude that the association is causal.’