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A Cooked-Up Lawsuit

Trial lawyers are now targeting Teflon.

By 9.19.05

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WASHINGTON -- The kitchen can be a dangerous place, as I quickly found when I served as chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Hot toasters that could burn children. Deep-fat fryers that could tip over and scald cooks.

But by far the biggest danger was, and remains, unattended cooking fires. As one expert notes, most of these fires start when someone begins cooking with oil or fat, then leaves the kitchen and forgets about it. As the saying goes, "When the fat hits the fire," bad things happen, and people can die.

These are the kinds of hazards that need our attention in the kitchen. Yet two Florida law firms are focusing their attention -- and, unfortunately, consumers' attention -- on nonstick cookware. That's right. The same cookware that creates healthier foods and can actually cut down on fires in the kitchen.

With much media fanfare, the lawyers recently announced that they've filed a $5-billion class-action against DuPont, the maker of Teflon.

The lawsuit claims that DuPont failed to warn consumers about the "dangers" of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) -- a chemical that is supposedly in Teflon. The lawyers want DuPont to pay for tens of thousands of replacement frying pans and "create a fund for ongoing medical monitoring of consumers" who used nonstick cookware, according to the firms' breathless news release.

"The class of potential plaintiffs could well contain almost every American that has purchased a pot or pan coated with DuPont's nonstick coating, popularly known as Teflon," plaintiff's lawyer Alan Kluger stated.

The lawsuit left consumers worrying about their frying pans, wondering whether their kitchen harbored a set of deadly utensils.

Fortunately, there's no need to worry -- unless you're a lawyer hoping to cash in on a big court settlement. Your Teflon-coated cookware is safe.

First, studies show cooking with Teflon-coated pots and pans do not release PFOA. A peer-reviewed study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, shows that even when Teflon-coated cookware is overheated, or scratched with a knife, no PFOA can be detected.

Second, there are many questions about whether PFOA is dangerous in the first place. The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to determine the health risks associated with PFOA in the environment. Some experts say PFOA may be a carcinogen. Other experts disagree, saying that rodent studies are not applicable to humans in this case.

Regardless, the agency is not investigating the safety of Teflon and says it "does not believe there is any reason" for consumers to stop using their cookware.

As chairman of the CPSC about 20 years ago, I studied this issue and determined that any health and safety concerns were unfounded. The same is true today.

As a matter of fact, there are good reasons to use Teflon-coated cookware.

The American Heart Association, for example, notes that you can "create a healthier diet without losing out on flavor" by using non-stick cookware, thereby cutting down on butter or vegetable oil. For the same reason, the North Carolina Stroke Association recommends using non-stick cookware.

In addition, Teflon-coated cookware can actually cut down on cooking fires -- the No. 1 cause of fires in homes and fire injuries, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Karen Benedek, an expert on cooking safety, explains that "in over 70 percent of range top fires, it's the oil, fat, grease or food itself that ignites. The less fat, the smaller the fire. Because non-stick cookware requires less fat for cooking, it can help reduce dangers in the kitchen."

So, to recap, we have lawyers who are focusing people's attention away from true hazards in the kitchen; scaring people away from using products that help them cook healthier meals; and frightening them away from products that help prevent kitchen fires, the leading cause of fire injuries in the home.

Someone should file a class-action suit against the lawyers.

Terrence Scanlon, a former chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is president of the Capital Research Center.

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Terrence Scanlon, a former chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is president of the Capital Research Center.