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New York Times' Teflon Errors
February 08, 2006
Trevor Butterworth
For those keeping up with an endless saga of media inaccuracy

If one was to judge the state of American journalism from the media coverage of the alleged risks of Teflon, one might well conclude that reporting just isn't what it used to be.

Take the New York Times latest contribution - As Teflon Troubles Pile Up, DuPont Responds With Ads - which appeared in the February 8 Dining and Wine section. The Times reports that

"Fluorotelomers, chemicals used in packaging, can also break down into PFOA, but there is currently no way for consumers to tell if a package contains the chemicals. The F.D.A. has found that PFOA migrates to the oil from the packaging for microwave popcorn bags during heating. The chemicals are also found in packaging for pizza, bakery items, drinks and candy.

So what's wrong with this section? First off, the Food and Drug Administration actually found that flurotelomers migrate from packaging as flurotelomer compounds and NOT as PFOA. As the FDA noted in a letter made available to the media in November 2005:

“…it should be noted that this flurotelomer migration from coated paper, as reported in this article [Begley, T., et al Food Additives and Contaminants 22 (10) 2005] occurs in the form of telomer-based compounds themselves and should not be equated with PFOA exposure.”

There is, in fact, no scientific evidence that flurotelomers can break down into PFOA.

As for PFOA migration from microwave popcorn bags, which the Times claims the FDA found, it was, as the FDA noted, “below the level of quantitation using current analytical methods.” This means that it was lower than one part per billion, That strikes us as the kind of fact that people ought to know if they are going to be told that chemical migration is happening. If you don't answer the question "How much?" readers may think they are at risk. Lower than one part per billion is not a risk as we conventionally know it.

And this brings us to an even more vexing ommission by the Times: FDA officials have stated that "we have no reason to change our position that the use of perflurocarbon resin and telomer-based coatings are safe for use in contact with food as described in applicable regulations or notifications.”

And even though the EPA's Scientific Advisory Board has recommended that PFOA be designated a "likely carcinogen,", EPA officials took pains to say there was no risk to consumers from Teflon-coated cookware.

Oh, one more thing missing from the New York Times piece - there are no studies showing any link between the current level of PFOA in American blood and any health problems.

Perhaps the Times Dining section needs a refresher course in getting the other side of the story - or perhaps they would have served their readers much better by doing what the Washington Post food section did, get a professor of chemistry to look at the risk.

Please note, STATS does not receive any funding from DuPont.