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The Surprising Link Between Teflon and the Atomic Bomb

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

Story at-a-glance -

  • The Teflon chemical PTFE is one of a large group of fluorinated chemicals known as polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFASs), which include PFOA and PFOS
  • PTFE was a Manhattan project-funded discovery that came about quite by accident, at the hands of Roy Plunkett, a DuPont chemist working with Freon refrigerants in 1938
  • The Manhattan Project gave momentum to the development and large-scale production of fluorocarbons, including PFASs, which were also taken up by 3M to make Scotchgard
  • PFASs persist in the environment, are contaminating water supplies and have been linked to developmental problems, cancer, liver damage, immune effects, thyroid problems and more

Most of you reading this have probably used Teflon-coated nonstick cookware. You may even still have a Teflon pan or two in your kitchen. Even if you haven’t, you’ve certainly been exposed to polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a synthetic fluoropolymer and the chemical behind Teflon products, via other sources.

PTFE is one of a large group of fluorinated chemicals known as polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFASs), which include PFOA and PFOS. Historically, PFASs were once known as fluorocarbons. While the acronyms can get a bit confusing, the important thing to remember is that this family of chemicals (PTFE, PFAS, PFOA, PFOS and PFCs) is toxic to your health.

In fact, the convenience of a nonstick or stain-resistant surface comes at a steep price, as such chemicals persist in the environment, are contaminating water supplies and have been linked to developmental problems, cancer, liver damage, immune effects, thyroid problems and more.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest PFASs are in the blood of more than 98 percent of Americans,1 a disturbing prospect that becomes even more unnerving when you look back at where PFASs came from.

Before they found their way into Americans’ kitchens, clothing, food packaging and the very cells of our bodies, PFASs were broken down elements in a lab, created by happenstance during the race to create an atomic bomb.

The Makings for PFASs Started During the Manhattan Project

In an essay for Aeon, Rebecca Altman, Ph. D., weaves the true tale of the link between Teflon chemicals and the atomic bomb, and how they’ve essentially “time bombed” the future with their toxic legacy. “The story was set in motion by a quirky chemist named Joseph H. Simons, who invented the method that 3M, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, used to make PFASs for more than 50 years,” Altman wrote.2

The Manhattan Project, code name for the U.S.-led effort to develop the world’s first atomic bomb during World War II, required uranium to be converted into uranium hexafluoride, a gas. This process required uranium to be combined with fluorine, a deadly, highly explosive gas. Prior to this, in the 1930s, Simons was already working with fluorine. According to Altman:

“Simons was studying simple fluorocarbons and needed a small sample of one in particular — carbon tetrafluoride (CF4) — to make measurements. The only way to procure CF4 was to make it, and the only way to make it was to react fluorine with carbon, inviting an explosion.

Simons built his own equipment to contain the blast, and hired a former football player — ‘fast and broad-shouldered’ — to run the process, teaching him to flee before the whole apparatus detonated.

Except, for weeks, nothing happened. No explosion. No carbon tetrafluoride in the collection vessel. Just a few drops of a clear, curious liquid. Eventually Simons realized that an old pipe, salvaged from a neighboring lab, had been caked with mercury. The mercury had changed the chemistry so that the reaction yielded a breed of fluorocarbons that seemed inert and unassailable.”3

In 1940, Harold Urey, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist of Columbia University in Manhattan, joined forces with Simons, code naming his discovery “Joe’s stuff,” and it turned out the liquid concoction withstood both fluorine and uranium hexafluoride.

“Chemists soon descended on Columbia to work on ‘Joe’s stuff,’” Altman noted, and Simons continued working on both fluorinated war gases and developing a safer way to produce fluorocarbons. While Simons’ techniques for large-scale production of fluorocarbon weren’t ultimately used to develop the bomb, they were taken up by 3M.

“By 1944, the company had licensed it and readied it for factory production in Hastings, Minnesota, along the upper Mississippi River,” Altman explained.4 By the 1950s, more than 800 compounds made from fluorocarbons were in existence, ranging from refrigerants to waxes and paints.5

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Teflon Chemical Also ‘Accidentally’ Came From the Manhattan Project

PTFE was also discovered quite by accident, at the hands of Roy Plunkett, a DuPont chemist working with Freon refrigerants, in 1938.

In its history of Teflon, DuPont spin-off company Chemours, stated, “Upon checking a frozen, compressed sample of tetrafluoroethylene, he and his associates discovered that the sample had polymerized spontaneously into a white, waxy solid to form polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). PTFE is inert to virtually all chemicals and is considered the most slippery material in existence.”6

Eventually, and with the help of another chemist by the name of Malcolm Renfrew, PTFE entered the large-scale market and DuPont built a Teflon factory along the Ohio river in West Virginia, an area now heavily polluted with PFAS.

“Though the bomb sped fluorocarbons into development,” Altman wrote, “it was another Manhattan Project-funded technology, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), the then-new fluorinated plastic best-known as Teflon, that helped to broadcast them into the environment.”7

In its Teflon production, DuPont also used a variant of PFOA known as C8, which was widely released into waterways, landfills and the air. Even Renfrew was surprised at its ultimate usage in American cookware, stating, ‘We knew it would be an important chemical, [but] the frying pan thing … I would never have imagined that.”8

Around the same time that PTFE was accidentally discovered, PFOS was also accidentally synthesized by Patsy Sherman, of 3M, which would ultimately use it as a key ingredient in its Scotchgard stain repellant.9

A New, Nonstick World

In addition to nonstick cookware, PFASs have been used in everything from carpet and fabrics to coatings for paper and cardboard packaging to firefighting foams.

Although most companies have stopped making PFOA and PFOS as their serious environmental and health risks have been uncovered, the chemicals are extremely persistent in the environment; they do not break down in water or soil and can be carried over great distances by wind or rain, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.10

PFASs have since been found in air, surface water, groundwater, drinking water, soil and food, and humans can be exposed via all of these sources. And it all started during the quest for an atomic bomb. Marko Filipovic, Department of Environmental Science and Analytical Chemistry at Stockholm University, explained:11

In the early 1940s, during World War II, the Manhattan project required new inert materials for separation of uranium isotopes via gas diffusion from their corrosive hexafluorides. Fluorinated materials were uniquely suited for the task. The Manhattan project gave great momentum to the development of new fluorine based chemicals.

Ever since, the fluorine industry has grown exponentially and a large variety of poly- or per-fluorinated organochemicals have become ingredients in the products of everyday life.

The success story of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) started thus with the accidental synthesis of new chemicals and chemists serendipitously discovering the extraordinary physical-chemical properties of these new materials.”

The Lasting Toxic Legacy of PFAS

From Michigan to Vermont, companies using toxic PFOA and other similar chemicals in the manufacture of Teflon-containing fabrics and waterproof shoes have left behind a toxic legacy: contaminated water and soil that’s been poisoning area residents for decades.

PFOA is already the subject of at least 3,500 personal injury claims against DuPont. One woman who developed kidney cancer after drinking PFOA-contaminated water was awarded $1.6 million in damages.12 During the legal process of suing DuPont, hundreds of internal documents were uncovered showing the company knew about the chemical's danger to the public and employees, likely as early as 1961.

Although this information is only recently reaching the courts, over a decade ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined DuPont $16.5 million for withholding decades’ worth of information about health hazards. Although it was the largest fine the EPA had ever assessed, it did not act as a deterrent to the company and DuPont continued to manufacture and release C8 into the environment.

While production of PFOA ended in 2015, DuPont and other companies have only substituted a shorter chain version of C8 in the production of stain-resistant materials and nonstick pans. What's worse, the company has known of the effects on the environment and human health and has repeatedly lied to federal and local regulators, consumers and even their own employees about toxicity from exposure.

If you want to know more details, the film "The Devil We Know," released at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, depicts the struggle employees and residents of the Ohio Valley went through to ensure DuPont chemical company takes responsibility for their actions, which will be experienced for centuries to come.

In May 2015, more than 200 scientists from 40 countries signed the Madrid Statement, which warns about the harms of PFAS chemicals and documents the following potential health effects of exposure:13

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

Hypothyroidism

High cholesterol

Ulcerative colitis

Reduced birth weight and size

Obesity

Decreased immune response to vaccines

Reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty

Teflon Chemicals Pollute US Drinking Water

The problem is worst near known chemical plants and dumping grounds, but even if you live in a seemingly “clean” area, there’s a chance your water could be contaminated with these ubiquitous and highly toxic chemicals.

According to a 2016 Harvard study, 16.5 million Americans have detectable levels of at least one kind of PFAS in their drinking water, and about 6 million Americans are drinking water that contains PFAS at or above the EPA safety level.14

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 have also been found to be contaminated. The full extent of PFAS contamination in water supplies is unknown, but there’s a good chance your drinking water could be contaminated to some extent.

The existence of chemicals like PFASs, which have no taste or smell, in drinking water is the reason I recommend virtually everyone filter their water with 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.

PFAS May Also Be in Your Food Wrappers

In addition to cookware, clothing and cosmetics, another product group where you’re likely to see PFASs include fast food packaging and food wrappers. In one study, about one-third of fast food wrappers and containers were found to contain fluorine, which suggests perfluorinated chemicals were used to give the paper a slick surface, making it oil- and grease-resistant.15

Given these chemicals’ pervasive and persistent use, everyone would be well served by following the Madrid Statement’s recommendation to avoid products containing, or manufactured using, PFASs, which include most that are stain-resistant, waterproof or nonstick. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) further recommends avoiding:16

Items that have been pretreated 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 PTFE.

Items treated with flame retardant chemicals, 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 PFASs

Microwave popcorn. PFOA may not only be 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

Nonstick 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 nonstick cookware called Duralon uses a nonfluoridated nylon polymer for its nonstick coating. While this appears to be safe, your safest bet is still ceramic and enameled cast iron.

Oral-B Glide floss and any other personal care products containing PTFE or "fluoro" or "perfluoro" ingredients.