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Dr. Kim Innes and colleagues at the West Virginia University School of Medicine report that high levels of two chemicals used in making Teflon coatings for pots, pans, and other smooth surfaces can lead to higher rates of osteoarthritis.

Pots and Pans May Cause Aches and Pains

thumb_teflon_pan.jpgThis is the kind of arthritis causing degeneration of the joints without destroying other tissues in the body.

The two chemicals linked to joint trouble are perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). In the 50,000 people in northern West Virginia and southeastern Ohio, Dr. Innes and associates studies, people with the highest concentrations of PFOA in their bloodstream had 40% higher rates of osteoarthritis. Since osteoarthritis typically strikes older people who are overweight and PFOA was most strongly linked to arthritis in younger people who are normal weight, the West Virginia research team suspects the relationship is causal, that is, exposure to the chemical damages the joints.

What Are PFOA and PFOS?

PFOA is a chemical that synthesized from octanoic acid, one of the healthy fats in virgin coconut oil. Combined with hydrofluoric acid, an acid so corrosive that it melts glass, octanoic acid becomes PFOA, which in turn can be treated with deadly sulfur trioxide gas to make PFOS.

These chemicals create polymers that are very resistant to corrosion. Their first use was in the Manhattan Project that created the American atomic bomb. PFOA and PFOS were used to make coatings for valves that would not melt when exposed to uranium gas.

Nowadays, PFOA and PFOS are used in floor wax, floor wax removers, rain-proof outdoor wear, fire-retardant foam, fire-retardant fabrics, grout for putting down tile, carpets, dental floss, and Teflon cookware. There is about 1500 times more PFOA and PFOS in floor wax than there is in Teflon pots and pans. However, when Teflon is heated to temperatures over 350 °C (660 °F), the PFOA and PFOS in the Teflon begin to dissociate from the pan.

The super-heated Teflon can produce fumes that can kill birds immediately and make humans sick. People exposed to the fumes from overheated Teflon pans can develop polymer fume fever, which causes symptoms similar to flu. Most of the PFOA and PFOS to which we are all exposed, however, isn't actually from Teflon. It's from adhesives, tapes, clothes, and carpets.

Once these chemicals get into the environment, it's nearly impossible to get them out. They can't be leached away, melted away, or bioremediated. Even blasting the soil with a flamethrower would just evaporate the chemicals to spread them farther.

Massive exposure to PFOA and PFOS from chemical spills in Huntington, West Virginia and Ashland, Ohio was the inspiration for the West Virginia Medical School study, but nearly everyone in the entire world is contaminated with these chemicals.

Are You Contaminated with These Chemicals, Too?

While Dr. Innes and team only studied people most affected by chemical spills and factory waste water in a small part of the American Midwest, other studies have found that nearly everyone experiences some degree of PFOA contamination. One study found that 99.7% of Americans have detectable levels of PFOA in their bloodstreams, although another study of Koreans found levels that are 15 times higher. One American  company's tests of workers at its affiliated Chinese cookware plants found levels of PFOA that are nearly 650 times higher than those found in most Americans, and researchers noted that it only took a year for the workers to become contaminated for life.

Industrial pollution with PFOA and PFOS outside of China is actually declining, but there are 615 other chemicals that break down into PFOA and PFOS. It's a real problem that is not going away any time soon.

These chemicals are not just associated with higher risk of arthritis. They have also been linked to ADHD, autism, infertility in males, premature puberty in females, and various cancers in both sexes. So what can you do to protect your health in the meantime?
Continue reading after recommendations

  • D'Hollander W, de Voogt P, De Coen W, Bervoets L. Perfluorinated substances in human food and other sources of human exposure. Rev Environ Contam Toxicol. 2010, 208:179-215. Review.
  • Photo courtesy of turkeychik on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/turkeychik/3481569844/

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