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Environmental group lobbies for warnings on Teflon cookware

By Callie Lyons, clyons@mariettatimes.com

An environmental action group is petitioning the Consumer Product Safety Commission to put warning labels on Teflon-coated cookware, saying heated pans coated with the substance will kill pet birds.

The Environmental Working Group this week urged the commission to take action on the issue. The Washington, D.C.-based scientific research organization says that in 2 to 5 minutes, with the use of a typical household stove, non-stick coated pans reach temperatures that produce toxins that kill birds.

The issue is relevant to Mid-Ohio Valley citizens because the chemical with the trade name of C8 is a key ingredient in the making of Teflon. It is the chemical C8 that has been the subject of a class action lawsuit by citizens who live near DuPont's Washington, W.Va., Works plant who say it is harmful to their health.

Officials for DuPont, which makes Teflon, claim the non-stick cookware is safe, if used correctly.

"We try to make sure consumers understand proper use. But, how each manufacturer conveys information to the consumer is up to them," said Cliff Webb, director of media relations for DuPont, whose local plant is across the Ohio River from western Washington County.

Many bird lovers have known for years that Teflon kills birds, said Bill Thompson III, editor of Birdwatchers Digest, a magazine published in Marietta.

"It's a topic that is all over Internet discussion boards for pet bird owners," Thompson said. "If you leave a Teflon skillet on the stove, birds can inhale the fumes, and it can be deadly."

Area naturalist and bird-owner Julie Zickafoose, of Whipple, keeps her birds in a special room with good ventilation, and not in the kitchen.

"Birds are one big lung," Zickafoose said. "They have five or six air sacks and two lungs, which are all connected. That's where they get their buoyancy in the air."

When Zickafoose uses non-stick pans for stovetop cooking, she is careful to stand over the stove and turn the burner off immediately. She closes off the birds' room and gets the kids out of the area, as well, to protect the more delicate members of her household from fumes.

Like many, her concern isn't limited to her pets.

In a press conference Wednesday, the environmental group's scientists said they, too, are concerned about what the phenomenon of Teflon fumes killing birds might mean for humans.

"The metaphor is the canary in the coal mine," said EWG president Ken Cook. The group is asking the consumer safety commission to label non-stick coated cookware with a warning about dangers to pet birds and possible human health effects.

Dr. Jennifer Klein, EWG chemist, tested a Teflon-coated pan's temperature using a precision infrared thermometer to determine how quickly the pan achieved enough heat to begin releasing fumes.

"Our simple test showed DuPont is wrong when they tell customers the pans won't degrade except under extreme misuse. Actually, the pans started emitting toxic particles and chemicals quite quickly at temperatures within normal use on a typical stovetop," Klein said.

Others believe the environmental group is attempting to scare the public.

Terrence Scanlon, a former chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan, said, "There is no new credible science in the charges being leveled against Teflon by the Environmental Working Group."

"I think the government has more serious concerns than canaries kept in a kitchen and suffering from fumes," Scanlon said. "The only thing truly toxic in this story is EWG's overheated rhetoric which is designed to generate headlines and create public anxiety. The dangers to small birds and humans from the extreme overheating of Teflon-coated pans has been well known for many years and incidents are very rare."

Webb points to information that DuPont co-authored with a veterinarian 10 years ago as an example of the company's ongoing commitment to recognize the importance of consumer awareness. "Making a Safe Home for Your Bird" is available online at the DuPont Web site, along with other consumer protection information.

"You've probably heard stories of old-time miners who used canaries in the mines to detect dangerous gases because birds would show the effects of gas much sooner than humans," the guide says. "Fumes from everyday cooking can be harmful to your bird - particularly smoke from burning foods. Nonstick cookware can also emit fumes harmful to birds if cookware is accidentally heated to high temperatures, exceeding approximately 500 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the temperatures needed for frying or baking."

DuPont recommends never keeping a pet bird in the kitchen.

Despite the corporation's consumer advice, EWG researchers say consumers don't know that Teflon can kill birds.

"If it is such a well-documented phenomenon, why don't people know about it?" asked Lauren Sucher, EWG communications director.

Brian Stollar of Fish & Stuff, at Third and Putnam streets in Marietta, was not aware of the danger non-stick cookware poses to birds, even though he works in a pet shop.

"My mother has had birds for 10 years and keeps them on a dryer in the kitchen," Stollar said. "We've never had a problem. My aunt keeps her birds in the kitchen."

"But, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the big question," Stollar said. "If it does that to birds, what does it do to people?"

DuPont officials have confirmed that exposure to the fumes has been known to cause a condition known as polymer fume fever in humans.

"Fumes can cause flu-like symptoms," Webb said. "It's a temporary situation that abates in a very short time with a little fresh air. Ventilation is extremely important. There are no long-term health effects. And, it can be avoided with proper cooking techniques."

But, EWG scientists say there are cases of polymer fume fever documented in pet owners, who have lost birds to Teflon fume exposure, that have lasted as long as a month.

DuPont has been working with C8, the key ingredient in Teflon, for 50 years and claims there are no human health hazards associated with the chemical. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a public meeting in June to gather more information about the chemical for further evaluation of toxicity to humans.

"We are quite confident when the Consumer Product Safety Commission looks at our data DuPont will have to label that risk," Cook said.

 








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