With a lump in my throat I sent my little boy off to BIG school last week. But I wasn't choked up for the reasons you may think - end of an era, growing up too fast, separation anxiety and all that. No. It was because as I ripped his new uniform from the the plastic bag I read the proudly displayed tags - Teflon.
My heart sank. "You've got to be kidding me" I said aloud. "What mum?" my 5yr old asked. I looked at his innocent brown eyes and refrained from telling him that mummy naively assumed school uniforms would be safe.
5mins until the first day of school begins and what was I to do? Send him in his organic cotton shorts and t-shirt and set him up for a lifetime of ridicule, have him grow up and hate me for turning him into the weird kid at school, or send him off looking like everyone else in his toxic clothes?
The last few years I have been working hard to make my home a Teflon free zone. But as I am still finding out the stuff is ubiquitous. So while I focused on tossing out my non-stick cookware, my Teflon coated iron and ironing board (any excuse not to iron), my baking paper and saying no to Scotchguard, I forgot about stain resistant, crease resistant, durable clothing.
Dupont, the makers of Teflon, have just undergone the biggest class action law suit in the US for polluting the town of Parkersburg, West Virginia. They received the largest administrative fine from the EPA for knowingly polluting the town and it's people. Dupont knew for over 20years how dangerous PFOA (the main chemical in Teflon,) was because they tested their own factory workers. When they discovered that it was causing birth defects, and a whole range of health problems in their workers they did exactly what you would expect of a billion dollar corporation- hid the evidence and covered it up. Years later the EWG did some digging around and sprung them. Dobbed to the EPA. Who then put them in the naughty corner for a little while. Made them go and say sorry in the form of paying out about $340 million to fix the water, run a few health programs, pay off some people and clean up their mess. $340 million is a tiny slap on the wrist to a company who makes about 3 billion profit a year. You would reasonably expect after all this that Dupont would no longer be allowed to make teflon and use these fluorotelomers, wouldn't you? But for some reason they have been given until 2015 to find an alternative for PFOA. So instead of packing up and taking the naughty kid home it looks like the naughty kid not only gets to stay but gets another turn of the toy.
The chemistry is a little confusing. The EWG has heaps of info on Teflon seeing as they played a huge role in exposing it. Check out this linkhttp://www.ewg.org/pfcdictionary for a basic explanation of the chemicals. Teflon is made from perfluorochemicals PFC's. These chemicals are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic. PFOA, PFOS, PTFE and c8 are all by products of Fluorotelomers. They are found in the bodies of all of us and even newborn babies. PFOA has even been found in Polar bears. So how does this persistent chemical reach the arctic? Polar bears don't cook in Teflon pans.
I rang Dr Sarah Lantz, author of "Chemical Free Kids", and asked if Teflon is only dangerous when heated? She told me that it offgasses and that the chemicals in the clothing can be absorbed directly through the skin. She said the more it is washed and hung on the line the better. It slowly gets less toxic the more it gets washed. It just goes straight into the environment then and up to the polar bears rather than directly on the skin. GREAT. So not good news for my little boy who's unorganised mum forgot to wash his uniform first.
It is a well known fact that cooking with Teflon pans can kill canaries if they are in the kitchen. Dupont's response to this is something along the lines of, " well birds have weak lungs and you should remove pets from the kitchen when cooking." I couldn't help but think of this as I waved good bye to my little boy, with the 38degree sun beating down on his canary colored,Teflon coated school uniform.