Should we throw away our old pots, pans and pans with a non-stick coating? PFAS (perfluroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which have been widely used since the 1950s in various fields such as non-stick coatings, cosmetics, textiles, food packaging, firefighting foams or plant protection products, are among the "forever chemicals". Among them, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, mainly used in the manufacture of Teflon), banned in Europe since 2020, has just been classified as carcinogenic by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer). Do we need to renew our cookware? Is the problem more complex than a simple change of pots?
PFOA represents both a challenge for the environment and for public health, the Ministry of Ecological Transition explained to Le Figaro. It may be advisable to replace some everyday consumer items if they are old or degraded, such as stoves or water-repellent textiles, in favour of PFAS-free alternatives." But what does "ancient" or "degraded" mean? Probably much more than you think, according to manufacturers and dealers: for the lifespan of a non-stick pan, Tefal announces 2 to 3 years on its website, De Buyer indicates that you should get rid of it when the food starts to stick. Nevertheless, everyone agrees on one point (which, again, probably few of us respect): these pots and pans should only be used on low and medium heat.
The entire exposed population
In 2022, 60 million consumers magazine conducted an experiment on stoves with a non-stick that had undergone a low abrasion in order to simulate 10 weeks of use. A food item was cooked and then analyzed. As a result, some pans appear to be more likely to release PFOA than others. And the "PFOA-free" label is not a guarantee: some foods cooked in utensils that bore this label contained it, but in very small quantities, and without the study allowing a decision on its origin (they can also be used in the packaging of the food). It should be noted that the analysis also revealed the presence of other problematic fluorinated compounds.
At the end of November, an article in the journal The Lancet reported that PFOA and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, used to treat textiles and papers for food contact) "are detected in blood samples in the populations studied around the world, and median levels are up to a hundred times higher in communities close to polluted sites." These two molecules "accumulate in various tissues, including the blood, liver, and lungs. They are found in the placenta, cord blood and embryonic tissues and can be transferred to infants via breast milk." And it takes time to get rid of them: their half-life (the time it takes for their activity to halve) can be several years in humans. Is that worrisome?
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The Lancet article states that the evidence that PFOA causes cancers in exposed laboratory animals and humans is "sufficient". PFOA causes immunosuppression and epigenetic alterations. Thus, 30 international experts from 11 countries met from 7 to 14 November 2023 at the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) in Lyon, to evaluate PFOA, PFOS and their derivatives (salts and isomers). After the analysis of the results of various independent scientific studies, IARC announced that "the working group classified PFOA as 'carcinogenic to humans' (Group 1) and PFOS as 'possibly carcinogenic to humans' (Group 2B)". However, it is always a question of dose, and even if the substance is dangerous, it is difficult to know at what thresholds the risk appears.
Have we waited too long to ban these compounds? PFAS are molecules that contain the element fluorine, both hydrophobic and lipophobic (they "repel" water like oil), with high chemical stability. These characteristics give the objects non-stick, waterproofing and heat-resistant properties, which explains their success. But as early as 2009, PFAS were part of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants known as the "POPs Regulation". PFOS was banned in 2009, followed by PFOA in July 2020, and PFHxS (perfluorohexanesulfonic acid) in June 2022. On January 17, 2023, the French Ministry of Ecological Transition published an action plan on PFAS.
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Found in food and water
Banning them will not be enough to protect us from them, because they persist in the environment for a very long time. According to the Lancet article, "the general population is primarily exposed to PFOA and PFOS via food and drinking water, and potentially via consumer products." So the exhibition is not limited to our kitchen utensils. In addition, IARC states that "exposures are expected to be highest among workers involved in the production of PFOA and PFOS or who use these chemicals directly in the manufacture of other products," as well as in waste disposal. The Ministry of Ecological Transition is working with Europe on banning dangerous PFAS and it "calls for an increased level of vigilance and action", particularly in the monitoring of these chemical species in humans (Esteban biomonitoring campaign) and in aquatic environments (Naiads programmes). "The government has also asked ANSES to define new health reference values for these molecules, or to review existing values," says the Ministry of Ecological Transition.