In February 2018, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine filed a lawsuit in Washington County against beleaguered DuPont Co. and its spin off Chemours Co. for allegedly dumping a cancer-causing chemical used in the manufacture of Teflon into the Ohio River near its plant in West Virginia. Contributing to the problems were two upriver landfills used by the company. The Ohio Attorney General’s lawsuit demands costs of cleaning up the chemical and damages for Ohio residents.
The chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, is also known as PFOA or C8. It has been linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, and high cholesterol. DuPont allegedly has been dumping PFOA into the Ohio River near its West Virginia plant for about 60 years. Worse, the Ohio Attorney General claims DuPont intentionally hid the dumping in order to avoid personal injury lawsuits — because it knew PFOA was toxic.
This is not the first time DuPont has faced lawsuits for alleged illegal dumping of this toxic chemical. In February 2017, the company agreed to pay $671 million to settle approximately 3,550 personal injury claims filed in federal court. The Ohio Attorney General lawsuit cites a 2017 study that indicates PFOA concentrations downstream from the DuPont plant in West Virginia were found as far away as 413 miles. This resulted in higher-than-normal levels of PFOA in residents’ bloodstreams, and their exposure was mainly through drinking water.
What You Should Know About Teflon, PTFE, and PFOA
Teflon is simply a brand name for polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which is a type of plastic that is a fluoropolymer. Polymers are common synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon.
PTFE is resistant to corrosion and very slippery, which is why it is used to coat Teflon pans among other uses, such as coating machine parts subject to heat and friction. Although PTFE itself is nontoxic under normal use, its manufacture produces toxic byproducts. PFOA was one of those toxic byproducts until 2013 when DuPont stopped using PFOA to manufacture Teflon.
Why PFOA Is Dangerous
PFOA does not easily degrade. When PFOA is dumped into rivers and landfills, it remains for a very long time, where it can continue to poison people. That also means it can remain in the body for a long time and accumulate with continued exposure. It has, in fact, been detected in the blood of most Americans.
Studies were done to determine if this is at least partially due to use of Teflon cookware. It was found that PFOA mostly burned off the pans during the manufacturing process. While trace amounts remained, researchers indicated that Teflon cookware was not a significant source of PFOA exposure. That means that the PFOA came from another source — such as the rivers and landfills where it allegedly was dumped.
The EPA reports that exposure to PFOA over certain levels may result in health problems that include developmental effects to fetuses and breastfed infants, cancer, liver effects, immune effects, thyroid effects, and cholesterol changes.
Is PTFE dangerous?
PTFE is a nontoxic substance but it does degrade at very high temperatures, which could cause health risks. It has a high melting point of 327 ºC. Food is cooked at lower temperatures than that. For example, a steak would be fried at around 280 ºC (536 ºF). So with normal use, PTFE is fine, since it does not start to degrade until temperatures hit 350 ºC (662 ºF). However, if it degrades, it releases fine particles that can damage the lungs. (A 2001 study also indicates it can degrade in the environment into a substance that is toxic to plants.)
The danger primarily occurs when a pan overheats, perhaps because someone became distracted while cooking. Cases have been documented of people suffering flu-like symptoms after breathing in PTFE during the manufacturing process, though no long-term effects have been reported. There have also been reports of pet birds dying when a Teflon pan was left on the stove for too long. Others have reported sick cats and dogs after exposure to Teflon cooking.
The takeaway is that inhaling PTFE is a concern if Teflon cookware is heated to very high temperatures, even though it is no longer manufactured with PFOA. Use over the long term may add to the concern. And if you have small pets, it’s best to use your stainless steel or cast-iron skillet.
Pursuing Legal Action Against DuPont: Teflon Lawsuit
Just because DuPont has settled some cases and the Ohio Attorney General has filed another does not mean you cannot also file a claim if you have been injured as a result of exposure to PFOA. Statutes of limitations do not start to run for personal injury in Ohio until you know you have suffered damages due to the actions of another. If you think you have suffered illness caused by PFOA, you can still file suit. You should not wait, however. The normal statute of limitations for personal injury in Ohio is two years from the date you know of the injury, though there are some exceptions. After that window closes, you lose your rights.
You may also be interested in: