Slippery devils

TeflonStripesIn my Eco-Nutrition class for the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, we discuss a lot of different environmental toxins, and their effects upon health and nutrition. These toxins are new to us as a species, and we have not had time to develop immunity to them. They also interact with one another in unpredictable ways. One of these, Teflon, in use for about 70 years, has been widely discussed in the mass media recently.

Nutritionists, chefs and environmentalists have long recommended against the use of Teflon cookware, especially when scratched. Its negative effects are magnified by heating, so cast iron, stainless steel, pyrex and other more stable materials have always been preferred options. Why? Read on.

Teflon, a coating known as polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE), is one of the perfluorinated chemicals known as PFCs which have, collectively, been considered dodgy by environmental agencies for years. Known endocrine disruptors which can damage liver and kidney function, suppress immune function and cause developmental disorders in humans and wildlife, PFCs have never been banned. They are present in such diverse locations as cookware, stain-protective sprays, microwave popcorn bag liners, fabrics and fire retardants. They persist in the body, in breast milk, and in food, water, air and soil, and accumulate harmfully in land- and water-based wildlife.

But now Teflon’s chemical component, perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA, PTFE or C8, has received much more scrutiny recently, thanks to a curious and dedicated lawyer who followed the chem-trail for us. New information is surfacing about its role in a host of medical problems: bladder cancer, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

The problem for 21st century consumers is that Teflon has slipped into every aspect of our lives. It’s made life easier, more convenient in many ways. Its qualities – slippery, non-corrosive, chemically stable (though not in all aspects, as we now know), and with an extremely high melting point – are unsurpassed by safer substances. Its harmful effects have been uncovered gradually in the years since its discovery in 1938.

It’s not just found on frying pans (and cooking without it requires skill – in a generation already lacking basic culinary know-how), but also on irons, bicycle chains, eyeglasses, skis, plumbing tape, cooking and industrial tools, ironing board covers, tennis racquets, medical devices, electronics, scissors, fabrics and of course muffin tins. (Tried to find a cookie sheet without nonstick coating lately?) All those items shed the coating over time (think about that worn-out frying pan – where did the coating go?) which we variously eat, breathe and absorb, or which finds its way into air, groundwater and soil.

Some estimate that the C8 already released into our environment will take about 2,000 years to disappear, were we to cease producing and using it now. But at the pointy end, manufacturers are phasing out production voluntarily. The only tool we have to avoid it from environmental sources is to use water filtration systems. I’d say it’s still worth doing a new year review of your cookware to lessen your home exposure thought.

Obesity: So many causes, so few solutions

SugarGood to see The Lancet looking critically at obesity – which will cripple public health systems in the years to come, through its association with diabetes, cancers and other chronic conditions.  Sugar taxes, the article notes, are not the only solution. (Personally I think they’d be a helpful start, given the rampant consumption of needlessly sweetened foods and beverages in the Western world. On the other hand, added sugars are only part of what the body metabolizes as sugar: processed carbohydrates are surely having an equal effect, and are harder for consumers to recognize as problematic.) Clearly dietary, environmental, commercial, metabolic, microbial and lifestyle causes and solutions need urgent study by government funders and health researchers.

The UK report referenced in The Lancet’s article, Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action (October 2015) lays bare a number of relevant issues and is worth a read. But even it ultimately bangs its head on the desk in dismay: no easy solution, it says. “No single action will be effective in reducing sugar intakes. This is too serious a problem to be solved by approaches that rely only on individuals changing their behaviour in response to health education and marketing, or the better provision of information on our food.”

To put it mildly, as the Lancet does:
“Obesity needs much more serious attention than countries and global health organisations are currently prepared to give.”