The New York Times recently published the results of a compelling study of the impact of a chemical used to make Teflon on pregnancy, specifically whether exposure to Teflon had any impact on the chance of a baby being born prematurely.
Teflon seemed like such a great idea. I can actually remember when it came out. Scraping pans that had food cooked into the metal was no fun. It was hard work, and the tools of the trade including steel wool Brillo pads, that could skin your fingers.
Then came Teflon, voila!, suddenly an easy swipe took care of all troubles.
Thankfully non-stick technology no longer needs the chemical Teflon.
But what do we now know about Teflon, and what about Teflon can help us understand our world better
What is Teflon?
Teflon is an artificial chemical that does not appear in nature, but was created by chemists in 1938. The chemical is a long chain of a very simple molecule. Imagine two carbon atoms joined together in a horizontal line. Now, attach two fluorine atoms to each of the carbon atoms.
That structure is the basic unit of Teflon. To make it Teflon, simply string together hundreds or thousands of these units in a long row of carbon atoms. That is Teflon.
When this chain of units, or polymer, is formed, it creates a waxy substance that will not allow water to stick to it at all.
By 1961, someone figured out if you coated a metal pot or pan with this chemical, no food would every stick to it. That was done, and Teflon coated pans became the rage from 1961 on, until its production in the US ceased in 2015, just two years ago.
A chain of 8 such carbon atoms is PFOA, which was once used to make Teflon and in many other applications, until 2014 when it was totally banned.
What has been found about Teflon’s related chemical, PFOA, and prematurity?
The study described in the Times asks a simple question- in a given population, how many of its babies were born prematurely when PFOA was in use, and how many were born prematurely when PFOA was not in use.
The answer is that about 118,000 premature births were prevented when PFOA began to eliminated in 2003 and fully eliminated in 2014 from new products.
This number is actually hard to comprehend. About 118,000 families had full term babies instead of experiencing what can be a very frightening and sometimes dangerous experience with prematurity. 118,000.
The Question of Why we Fight Germs so Much Better than Poisons?
I have no easy answer to this question, but the experience of Teflon-related PFOA raises it.
Imagine if about 100,000 of our children were impaired by a deadly bacteria that found its way into our baby formula. Can there be any doubt that factory would be shut down until the deadly bacteria was eliminated?
Or what if 100,000 college students suddenly lost the ability to walk after being infected by a paralyzing germ that contaminated college swimming pools across the nation. Is there any reason to believe that everyone would agree, the pools would have to be closed until the germ was neutralized?
We know the answer to these questions, no one hesitates to join together in unison- deadly germs are bad, we should eliminate our exposure to their dangers. Period. No controversy.
But for some reasons, we have a very different response to poisons, that is, chemicals not germs, that cause real harm.
I think there are at least 3 reasons for the difference:
1. The news often contradicts when it comes to presenting facts on what is dangerous. Yesterday compounds in eggs caused heart disease, today, not so much. This magazine says the estrogens in soybeans are harmful, this magazine says they are not. We are constantly bombarded with scare stories about first this chemical, then that one, the direction of concern rarely stays clear, we avert our gaze, we avoid getting worried.
2. Germs are so different from us, chemical poisons are deep in our world. It is conceivable that we can attack them, and leave our world essentially unchanged. No one has to change their home, or carpets, or factories to get rid of polio. That germ is not us. We have indeed gotten rid of it, and not one part of our daily routine had to change as a result. Dangerous chemicals are part of nearly every place, in so many of our plastics, so many of our furniture foams, much of our air, so much of our water. This makes thinking about getting rid of poisons very depressing, what can be done to get rid of them? So again, we avoid even thinking about the danger, to do so invites despair.
3. A germ is a germ, but each chemical is a very complex and different story. Yes there are huge numbers of germs, but when science determines the cause of cholera is from a cholera germ, it’s easy to understand. Once you get the idea of a germ, finding another breaks little new ground for us to understand it. Dangerous chemicals really are complex. The PBDE’s that are the flame retardants in our computers and phones that are now known to play a role in our children developing autism are hard to understand. And if you do get to a point of feeling familiar with what a PBDE flame retardant is, it doesn’t help you understand how phthalates in plastics can cause harm. Chemicals are a bewilderingly complex group of troubles. We avoid thinking about them because they are a wildly complex set of problems.
The Lesson from the Teflon-related PFOA.
Despite the fact that the news seems to go back and forth on what is harmful, PFOA clearly caused babies to be born dangerously early.
Despite the fact that thinking about chemicals in our world actually poisoning us is very discouraging, when we got rid of PFOA, 118,000 in the subsequent 11 years got to skip the dangers of prematurity.
Despite the fact that chemicals are so complex to think about, PFOA was a very simple proposition. It causes prematurity, getting rid of it saved over 100,000 real babies from being born dangerously early.
Putting it all together, Teflon seemed like a really nifty idea, I still love the idea of a pan being non-stick. It is sad to learn that a chemical at the heart of its production, PFOA hurt and killed so many babies by inflicting prematurity. It is astounding to learn that 118,000 babies were saved by banning PFOA.
- There are about 85,000 chemicals in our air, water, and homes. Test any one of us and you will find levels of thousands of these chemicals in our bodies. We don’t know what the vast majority of them do.
- BUT, when science finds proof that some chemical(s) causes a known poisonous harm to our minds, our bodies, and/or lives, we should get rid of it. Teflon-associated PFOA is a great example. It was proven to cause prematurity, so it was banned, now 118,00 people are walking around saved from being born early, in many instances, dangerously early.
- Project TENDR (www.projettendr.com), which we have written about before, has identified six more chemicals that play a role in actually developing autism, ADHD, and learning disorders. Imagine a world in which when we find out such facts, we stop the poisoning. In this case, it would mean fewer of our children would need to struggle with these disorders.
- It is time for us to think of chemicals that poison, the same we think about germs that kill. Let’s get rid of them when they are identified, instead of struggling for decades to do so. The examples of tobacco and lead are dramatic instances of known poisons persisting.
Let us know which chemicals hurt us, let us stop exposing ourselves and our children to them.
To your health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin