Woodson Merrell

Woodson Merrell M.D.

The Source of Healing

Teflon Undermining Fertility?

Study warns nonstick pans may impact fertility.

Posted Feb 10, 2009

In this winter of our discontent, when the investment advisor next-door, a Midwestern governor and even something as innocuously middle-American as peanut butter have been unmasked as potential threats, I've got another wolf in sheep's clothing to add to your list - nonstick pans. A serious environmental hazard to your health and fertility may be right under your nose when you scramble your eggs in the morning. The non-stick surface on pans releases a chemical when heated, pefluorooctanoate (PFOA), that appears to have toxic effects on the liver, immune system and reproductive organs. Now the latest research points to nonstick pans as one explanation for declining fertility in America, which is currently at historic lows (in vitro octuplets notwithstanding).

Evidence has been building about the dangers of Teflon and its relatives, Scothguard and other industrial chemicals in the class known as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs.) The controversial manmade molecules widely used in consumer products have been associated in the lab with the growth of testicular, breast, liver and prostate tumors. The PFC family of chemicals is also classified by the E.P.A. as probable hormone disruptors, with the potential for producing wide-ranging hormonal effects considered harmful to women's reproductive systems, though both the E.P.A. and F.D.A. have so far caved to corporate arm-twisting and declined to ban them from use.

This month a new study from the Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health at U.C.L.A. added credibility to this suspicion. Looking at a database of more than 40,000 women (in Denmark, where they also have PFC and fertility problems), researchers uncovered a remarkably strong association between blood-levels of these chemicals and infertility (measured as time to pregnancy from attempted natural conception). In the study the odds of infertility increased from as much as 70% to 134% for the women with PFC blood-levels found in the general population. While government regulators seem to greet this news with a big yawn, I just can't accept this strong a suggestion of risk. I recommend throwing away the pans...today!

You may ask how did these toxins get inside of us all? (About 95% of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control, have these pervasive industrial chemicals floating around in our blood streams.) Back in the Seventies, when better living through chemistry was the battle cry, these versatile, carbon-based chemicals (that persist in the environment and can stay in your body's fatty tissues for years) were grandfathered into the food supply with scant safety data.

Since then they've been put to use in everything from pots and pans to upholstery, carpeting, fire-proof pajamas and food packaging. We've been inadvertently consuming them for decades (PFCs are so pervasive they are even detected in drinking water.) I'm most worried about the nonstick pans because heat has been shown to release the chemicals into food.

For some time now scientists have suspected PFCs are toxic and have methodically continued to study them, uncovering some alarming reproductive trends linked to the exposure. Six years ago researchers working for the manufacturers themselves found that levels comparable to those of PFCs in the bloodstreams of many Americans correlated with lower birth weights, decreased pituitary size and decreased overall growth in lab animals.

Typically, industry apologists will tell you that any chemical (even water) given at a high enough dose can make you sick or even kill you. What's incredible is these harmful results were recorded at exposure levels that mimic the casual exposure to PFCs that environmental regulators consider to be acceptable in humans. To date no one has conducted the research to make the leap from growth trends in animals in the lab to humans.

But this discovery of the potential impact on children's ability to grow from incidental exposure to a ubiquitous industrial pollutant set off a tussle between the industry (mainly 3M and Dupont) and environmental regulators over proprietary research and company documentation. Ultimately it resulted in a promise (not a legal mandate) by companies to phase-out these chemicals by 2015. There's little evidence as to whether or not this phase-out is actually happening. And, by the way, anything manufactured in China is under no such promise.

So now, along comes this very well designed and provocative study from U.C.L.A., published in the February issue of the prestigious medical journal, Human Reproduction, showing a strong correlation between the chemicals in non-stick pans and infertility. As the U.C.L.A. researchers point out in their study, there has been a remarkable decline in fertility rates in the U.S. (increased age of people trying to get pregnant being a partial contributor). We are now among the least fertile nations on the planet, with about 20% of couples struggling with infertility.

What you can do is toss out the pans. What your government will do to protect you is uncertain. Last month, two of Bush's last acts were to give Dupont a deadline extension for submitting required Teflon safety research and increase the allowable amount of PFCs in drinking water in 9 states (including Washington D.C.) The good news is Obama's nominee for EPA chief, Lisa Jackson, is currently EPA commissioner of New Jersey, where PFC limits are 10 times lower than Bush's new limits. She may very well reverse his ruling, so there's hope for a cleaner world. In the meantime, you can remove the biggest source of this toxin from your own space by tossing out the nonstick pans.

But don't plan on buying new nonstick pans touted as "greener". The inside scoop on these is that they are as unhealthy as the old ones (read an update on these new pans). Best course of action would be to avoid non-stick pans altogether, and, perhaps, take cooking lessons!


About the Author

Woodson Merrell

Woodson Merrell, M.D., is an integrative physician based in Manhattan.

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