Teflon Dangers: Deadly to Chickens — And Us

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Photo By Matthew T. Stallbaumer
Teflon-coated light bulbs have killed chickens, but GE is too big to care.

GE has refused to add a warning to their bulbs’ packaging even though it has been known for many years that, when heated, Teflon-coated “nonstick” cooking pans can release a compound that kills birds and causes flu-like “polymer fume fever” in humans. In our October/November 2012 Dear MOTHER article, reader Lynn Chong detailed her efforts to convince GE to add a warning label to their light bulb packaging after a bulb killed 19 birds in her coop.

Chong’s story about Teflon dangers prompted us to research the history of Teflon and other perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). Turns out there’s a great deal more to the story of DuPont’s Teflon than the deadly danger it presents to birds. Here’s the timeline we compiled from reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post and from scientific literature.

  • Teflon has been used worldwide for more than 50 years in hundreds of nonstick and stain-resistant products. It’s used in food packaging, window films, cookware and more by such well-known brands as Gore-Tex fabrics, Scotchgard fabric and upholstery protectors, Stainmaster carpets, and SilverStone cookware.
  • At least one PFC (perfluorooctanoic acid, aka PFOA) associated with Teflon causes cancer of the testicles, liver and pancreas in rodents. It has been designated a probable human carcinogen. Roughly 90 percent of people carry PFOA in their blood; it is also found in polar bears, human sperm and at ocean depths of 3,000 feet.
  • Teflon and PFOA are PFCs, a large group of chemicals that has now polluted the entire planet. After 60 years of use, exactly how these potent chemicals are polluting people and the planet is “not yet known,” but extensive research and global regulatory efforts are finally underway. (See OECD for comprehensive information.)
  • In 2001, residents of communities near the West Virginia plant where DuPont produces PFOA filed a lawsuit alleging health damage caused by contamination of their drinking water. DuPont settled the lawsuit in 2004 and paid $300 million.
  • Documents discovered during the lawsuit showed that in 2000 a DuPont lawyer had warned the company: “Our story is not a good one. We continued to increase our emissions into the river in spite of internal commitments to reduce or eliminate the release of this chemical … because of our concern about its biopersistence.”
  • The EPA learned that DuPont had withheld information about PFOA pollution for more than 20 years. DuPont had to pay a fine of $16.5 million.
  • The Environmental Working Group has led efforts over the last decade to educate the public about PFC pollution.
  • In 2005, an FDA team discovered that high levels of PFOA and related compounds migrate from coatings on microwave popcorn bags into the popcorn.

Teflon products made DuPont at least $100 million in profit annually, according to court documents. In 2006, the EPA called on eight manufacturers of PFOA and related chemicals (PFCs) to voluntarily eliminate these “persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic” compounds. To date, some progress has been made. The agency is considering whether there is sufficient evidence to ban these chemicals.

Meanwhile, beware of GE light bulbs coated with DuPont’s Teflon — they can kill your chickens. And if you think a bulb promoted as shatter-proof for “rough service” might be a good choice in your kids’ bedrooms, think again. If Teflon products kill chickens overnight, you probably don’t want to use them anywhere in your home.

Teflon, PFOA and related PFCs have been used in thousands of products for more than five decades. They are just a few of roughly 80,000 chemical formulas on the market that are virtually unregulated under current laws. This story of DuPont putting profits ahead of public safety has been repeated hundreds of times by other companies. The good news is that a coalition of groups is now pushing for a new federal law called the Safe Chemicals Act. If passed, the law will give government agencies better tools to prevent chemical companies from poisoning our environment. To learn more, go to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years.Connect with her on.

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