Toxic Cookware Chemicals Have Polluted Drinking Water for Millions

polluted drinking water

Story at-a-glance -

  • PFASs — used to create non-stick, stain-resistant and water-repellant surfaces — are toxic and highly persistent, both in your body and in the environment and likely affecting your health
  • 16.5 million Americans have detectable levels of at least one kind of polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemical (PFASs) in their drinking water
  • PFOA was an essential ingredient in DuPont’s Teflon cookware for decades. It’s also used in hundreds of other non-stick and stain-resistant products

By Dr. Mercola

According to a recent Harvard study, 16.5 million Americans have detectable levels of at least one kind of polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemical (PFASs) in their drinking water. About 6 million Americans are drinking water that contains PFAS at or above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safety level.1,2,3,4

These industrial chemicals have been linked to a number of health problems, from obesity and hormonal problems to impaired immune function5 and cancer, and the study's authors warn that PFASs may contribute to illness even below the EPA's safety level. Co-author Dr. Philippe Grandjean told the Charleston Gazette-Mail:6

"The EPA advisory limit ... is much too high to protect us against toxic effects on the immune system. And the available water data only reveals the tip of the iceberg of contaminated drinking water."

Recent research even suggests PFAS exposure may reduce effectiveness of vaccines in children by interfering with their immune function.7

PFASs Have Become Ubiquitous in the Environment

PFASs are used in many industrial applications calling for non-stick or slick surfaces, such as food packaging, stain- and water-resistant fabrics, non-stick cookware and firefighting foam. As reported by CNN:8

"As a result of their ubiquity, the chemicals migrate into air, household dust, food, soil and ground and surface water, and they eventually make their way into drinking water.

The problem with PFASs is that they remain in your body for a long time. Though other chemicals can be excreted within hours, it takes about 3.5 years for your body to get rid of just half of whatever amount you ingest …"

Do You Have Unsafe PFAS Levels in Your Drinking Water?

While toxic water supplies were found in 33 states, 75 percent of the samples with elevated PFAS came from 13 states: California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts and Illinois.

Not surprisingly, the highest concentration levels of PFAS were found in watersheds near industrial sites, military fire training areas and wastewater treatment plants. Private wells were also found to be contaminated. According to the authors:

"Among samples with detectable PFAS levels, each additional military site within a watershed's eight-digit hydrologic unit is associated with a 20 [percent] increase in PFHxS, a 10 [percent] increase in both PFHpA and PFOA, and a 35 [percent] increase in PFOS.

The number of civilian airports with personnel trained in the use of aqueous film-forming foams is significantly associated with the detection of PFASs above the minimal reporting level."

Many Americans Face Health Risks From Water Contaminants

As reported by CNN,9 more than 18 million Americans also receive drinking water from water treatment facilities that have violated federal drinking water rules for lead. And, in 9 out of 10 cases, the EPA has taken no enforcement action against the violators.

Disturbingly, many water treatment facilities are actually using incorrect testing methods to avoid detecting high levels of lead, which means the number of Americans drinking lead-contaminated water is likely even higher than that.

An estimated 16 million also have perchlorate — a chemical used in explosives and rocket fuel — in their drinking water.10

Just how severe water contamination may be remains an open question, as the Safe Drinking Water Act only regulates 91 contaminants. Meanwhile, more than 80,000 chemicals are used in the U.S.11 There's really no telling how many of these chemicals, and in what amounts, end up in our drinking water.

Teflon Chemical Is Harmful at Minute Doses

One PFASs, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, also known as C8), has been revealed to be far more dangerous than previously thought. For 50 years, DuPont used PFOA to make Teflon. Throughout that time, the company defended the safety of PFOA.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of harm, DuPont still to this day resists accountability for health problems resulting from PFOA exposure. However, the truth has finally become too obvious to ignore.

Last year, The Intercept blew the case open when it published a three-part exposé12 titled "The Teflon Toxin: DuPont and the Chemistry of Deception," detailing DuPont's history of covering up the facts.

Earlier this year, The New York Times also published an in-depth exposé13 on the legal battle fought against DuPont for the past 15 years over PFOA contamination and its toxic effects.

According to a 2015 report14 by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the EPA's "safe" level of PFOA in drinking water is likely hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of times too high for safety:

"[T]wo leading environmental health scientists have published research with alarming implications … Their research finds that even very tiny concentrations of PFOA — below the reporting limit required by EPA's tests of public water supplies — are harmful …

Since 2013, an EPA testing program has found PFOA in 94 public water systems in 27 states. These systems provide drinking water to more than 6.5 million people.

... [A]mong the samples with PFOA, statewide average levels ranged between five times and 175 times the level described by the new research as safe."

Safety Level for PFAS Lowered, but May Still Not Be Low Enough

As a sign of progress, the EPA lowered the safety level for PFOA and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) from 0.4 parts per billion (ppb) to .07 ppb in May, 201615 (including a maximum combined level of .07 ppb if both chemicals are present).

The new standard takes into account lifetime exposure that would occur from drinking contaminated water.

Unfortunately, EPA data shows that water systems in 18 states are contaminated with PFOA and/or PFOS above the new federal threshold. Besides, even the new threshold may not be low enough to protect public health. According to the EWG, the safety level really should be 0.0003 ppb.

DuPont Faces Increasingly Serious Fallout From Its Teflon Products

PFOA is now the subject of about 3,500 personal injury claims against DuPont, four of which have already gone to court. One woman who developed kidney cancer after drinking PFOA-contaminated water was awarded $1.6 million in damages.16,17

These legal processes have uncovered internal documents showing DuPont was fully aware of the chemical's danger to the public and employees, yet continued using it while hiding contamination problems.

In 2002, the EPA announced PFOA may pose a health risk to the general public both via contaminated water and Teflon cookware. DuPont's own research shows that when its non-stick cookware is heated it breaks down to 15 toxic gases and particles, mostly fluorine-based.18,19

Three years later, in 2005, the EPA fined DuPont $16.5 million for violating the Toxic Substances Control Act by withholding decades' worth of information about health hazards associated with PFOA.

That same year, a panel of scientists was convened to determine PFOA's effect on human health. After seven years of research, the results of which are detailed in more than three dozen peer-reviewed papers, the C8 Science Panel linked PFOA to:20

Its health effects were deemed to be widespread and occurred even at very low exposure levels. Now, residents of Hoosick Falls, New York — where a string of rare cancer deaths, thyroid disease and other health problems have occurred — are suing PFOA manufacturers for contaminating their local water supply.21

Hundreds of Scientists Issue Warning Over PFASs

It's quite clear that the chemical industry cannot be trusted to regulate itself, and DuPont stands as a shining example of this. It can take decades before a dangerous chemical is recognized as such, and then the company can simply switch over to another untested, unregulated chemical, and the whack-a-mole game continues — all because chemicals do not have to be proven safe BEFORE they're used.

In May 2015, more than 200 scientists from 40 countries signed the so-called Madrid Statement,22,23 which warns about the harms of all PFAS chemicals, both old and new. Documented health effects associated with the older, long-chain PFASs, including the following:24

Liver toxicity

Disruption of lipid metabolism, and the immune and endocrine systems

Adverse neurobehavioral effects

Neonatal toxicity and death

Tumors in multiple organ systems

Testicular and kidney cancers

Liver malfunction


High cholesterol

Ulcerative colitis

Reduced birth weight and size


Decreased immune response to vaccines

Reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty

The Statement also points out the problem with replacing PFASs known to be harmful with other similar, but less scientifically evaluated, compounds, saying:

"Although some of the long-chain PFASs are being regulated or phased out, the most common replacements are short-chain PFASs with similar structures, or compounds with fluorinated segments joined by ether linkages.

While some shorter-chain fluorinated alternatives seem to be less bioaccumulative, they are still as environmentally persistent as long-chain substances or have persistent degradation products. Thus, a switch to short-chain and other fluorinated alternatives may not reduce the amounts of PFASs in the environment. In addition, because some of the shorter-chain PFASs are less effective, larger quantities may be needed to provide the same performance."

How to Avoid PFASs

According to the 1976 Toxic Sub­stances Control Act, the EPA can only test chemicals AFTER it has obtained evidence of harm. This arrangement is a prescription for disaster because it basically allows chemical companies to regulate themselves, and this is largely the reason why the EPA has restricted only five chemicals in the last four decades.

The Madrid Statement recommends avoiding any and all products containing, or manufactured using, PFASs, noting they include products that are stain-resistant, waterproof or non-stick. More helpful tips can be found in the EWG's "Guide to Avoiding PFCS."25 Other suggestions that will help you avoid these dangerous chemicals include avoiding:

Items that have been pre-treated with stain-repellants, and opt out of such treatments when buying new furniture and carpets

Water- and/or stain-repellant clothing. One tipoff is when an item made with artificial fibers is described as "breathable." These are typically treated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a synthetic fluoropolymer

Items treated with flame retardant chemicals,26 which includes a wide variety of baby items, padded furniture, mattresses and pillows. Instead, opt for naturally less flammable materials such as leather, wool and cotton

Fast food and carry out foods, as the wrappers are typically treated with PFCs

Microwave popcorn. PFOA may not only present in the inner coating of the bag, it also may migrate to the oil from the packaging during heating. Instead, use "old-fashioned" stovetop popcorn

Non-stick cookware and other treated kitchen utensils. Healthier options include ceramic and enameled cast iron cookware, both of which are durable, easy to clean and completely inert, which means they won't release any harmful chemicals into your home.

A newer type of non-stick cookware called Duralon uses a nonfluoridated nylon polymer for its non-stick coating. While this appears to be safe, your safest bet is still ceramic and enameled cast iron.

While some recommend using aluminum, stainless steel and copper cookware, I don't for the following reasons: aluminum is a strongly suspected causal factor in Alzheimer's disease, and stainless steel has alloys containing nickel, chromium, molybdenum and carbon.

For those with nickel allergies, this may be a particularly important consideration. Copper cookware is also not recommended because most copper pans come lined with other metals, creating the same concerns noted above. (Copper cookware must be lined due to the possibility of copper poisoning.)

Oral-B Glide floss and any other personal care products containing PTFE or "fluoro" or "perfluoro" ingredients. The EWG has an excellent database called Skin Deep27 you can peruse to find healthier options

At-Home Water Filtration Is a Must for Clean Pure Water

Unfortunately, your choices are limited when it comes to avoiding PFASs in drinking water. Either you must filter your water or obtain water from a clean source. Both solutions can be problematic and/or costly.

While many opt for bottled water, it's important to realize that PFASs are not regulated in bottled water, so there's absolutely no guarantee that it'll be free of these or other chemicals. Bottled water also increases your risk of exposure to hazardous plastic chemicals such as bisphenol-A (BPA), which has its own set of health risks.

Most common water filters available in supermarkets will not remove PFASs. You really need a high-quality carbon filtration system. To be certain you're getting the purest water you can, filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use. This means filtering all the water that comes into the house, and then filtering again at the kitchen sink and shower.

The New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute recommends using granulated activated carbon "or an equally efficient technology" to remove PFC chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS from your drinking water.28 Activated carbon has been shown to remove up to 90 percent of these chemicals.

One of the best filtration systems I've found so far is the Pure & Clear Whole House Water Filtration System, which uses a three-stage filtration process — a micron sediment pre-filter, a KDF water filter, and a high-grade carbon water filter.29

If you have been regularly exposed to PFASs by drinking municipal water, it would be wise to not only implement the above filtering recommendations to limit future toxic exposures but also consider a detox program. The likely most effective form would be to use infrared sauna with niacin as discussed in my interview with Dr. George Yu.

I personally do a version of this program three times a week in one of our infrared saunas — not only for PFASs but for all the other, nearly unavoidable exposures from living in contemporary society.