E.A. Crunden and Ariel Wittenberg, E & E News: March 24, 2021
Consumers trying to avoid toxic chemicals in their nonstick cookware face convoluted advertising claims that can confuse even the most well-informed buyers.
Take Diana Zuckerman, who, as president of the National Center for Health Research, is more familiar than the average person with chemistry and toxicology. Still, she said, trying to determine which pans and cookware did not contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of toxic substances linked to cancer and other health problems, was no easy task.
“I, like many consumers, was fooled by all the promotional statements made about many types of cookware,” she said. “You shouldn’t need a doctorate to figure out what cookware is safe.”
But there’s limited oversight or enforcement of misleading marketing claims related to chemicals, with critics arguing the nation’s consumer protection system — which includes the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau — is ill-equipped to handle them.
That’s despite test results conducted by an environmental watchdog showing cookware advertised as “free of” various kinds of PFAS often contained other types of the chemicals, thereby creating a difficult landscape for environmental- and health-minded buyers to navigate.
“The FTC is gun shy; I wouldn’t expect much of them,” said Rena Steinzor, a former attorney for the agency who now teaches food safety and regulatory law at the University of Maryland.
“I, like many consumers, was fooled by all the promotional statements made about many types of cookware.”
PFAS are perhaps best known for their nonstick properties; one of their most widespread uses is in the creation of polymers known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), like Teflon, used to repel water and reduce friction, making it easier to flip fried eggs and release cakes from their tins.
PTFE has often come under scrutiny because it once was made using a PFAS called PFOA, which was discontinued in the United States years ago after being linked to cancer and other negative health effects. Now, American PTFE is produced using other types of PFAS, many of which have not been fully studied.
It is unlikely consumers would be exposed to dangerous levels of the chemicals from their cookware. But advocates argue PFAS do pose health dangers for manufacturing workers, as well as communities surrounding factories that have polluted groundwater. Because PFAS can remain in the environment for years, there are also questions about how to safely dispose of products containing the chemicals without contaminating additional areas.
As a result, environmentally minded consumers have increasingly sought cookware that doesn’t contain the chemicals. When they do, they are confronted by an alphabet soup of advertising claims, many of which can be misleading.
Late last year, the Ecology Center tested 24 nonstick products and found 79% of cooking pans and 20% of baking pans were coated with PTFE — despite many companies advertising those products as PFOA-free.
Items tested by the Ecology Center included products made by Cuisinart and Cooking Concepts, among other brands.
In the most extreme example, the Ecology Center found that the Ozeri stone Earth frying pan was made with PTFE despite it being marketed as “absolutely free of toxic substances such as APEO, GenX, PFBS, PFOS, PFOA” — some of the more researched and controversial PFAS.
In another instance, PTFE was found on a pan by Sunkitch Hotsun simply labeled “eco-friendly.”
“Companies often tell us certain chemicals are not in a product,” said Melissa Cooper Sargent, the Ecology Center’s environmental health advocate. “But when they don’t tell us what is in the product, we cannot easily make an informed choice.”
That is what happened with Zuckerman, who realized a few years ago that the cookware she already owned likely contained PFOA. She purchased a new set advertised as PFOA-free, and only later figured out — after hours of research — that it likely contained PTFE instead.
“No one should have to go through that,” she said.
FTC’s ‘Green Guides’ and deceptive advertising claims
On paper, FTC would agree.
But the agency has pursued just one case involving chemical claims in recent years.
FTC entered into a consent decree with four paint companies — including Benjamin Moore & Co. — for claims that their paints would not emit volatile organic compounds directly after being applied.
Another little-known option available to consumers is filing a complaint with the BBB National Programs’ National Advertising Division, which was founded in 1971 in response to consumer calls for more truth in advertising. NAD investigates claims of misleading advertising and asks marketers to “substantiate” what they are telling consumers. If advertisers can’t back up their claims, NAD puts a stop to them.
But NAD’s process may not be well-equipped to handle instances where evidence about chemicals’ harms is still emerging, as was the case in 2012, when it evaluated claims related to PFAS and nonstick cookware.
Back then, the organization agreed to investigate claims made by GreenPan that its cookware was “PFOA-free” and “PTFE-free” in a complaint brought by DuPont — the chemical company that previously manufactured Teflon using PFOA.
DuPont alleged GreenPan’s claims unfairly disparaged PTFE coatings by implying they were all unsafe and all manufactured with PFOA.
Though GreenPan maintained it was not insinuating that its products were safer than PTFE-coated pans, NAD sided with DuPont, determining that as PFOA production had been discontinued, there was no evidence that PTFE coatings were more harmful to the environment than Greenpan’s nonstick coating.
NAD ultimately recommended GreenPan stop claiming its product was free of PFOA — even though the products are free of all PFAS.
In the years since, research into some PFAS used to replace PFOA in PTFE has linked the compounds to similar health and environmental effects.
Protecting vulnerable consumers
Navigating company claims around chemicals like PFAS can be especially challenging for communities that already face disproportionate environmental impacts.
Sylvia Orduño, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, said nonstick cookware is an important example of how environmental justice issues can intersect with consumer protection issues. Speaking at a panel hosted by the Environmental Law Institute, Orduño said nonstick cookware is “one example of how these sorts of problems are in our homes, are in our communities.”
Orduño wants to see more education in communities of color and low-income communities so that residents understand the connections between the products they purchase and contamination.
“We’ve also got to be better about how we communicate what we need through consumer protections and through education so that our communities understand that you really don’t want to be cooking with that,” she said.
Concern about the chemicals is already spawning companies with environmentally friendly branding. Those include Caraway Home Inc., which uses natural ceramic in its pans rather than PTFE coating and shared its test results with E&E News indicating the products do not include major PFAS compounds.
Sargent of the Ecology Center said ceramic is a preferred alternative to PTFE coating, and the organization’s testing found that items marketed as “PTFE-free” appeared to be free of PFAS. Other chemicals could still be present in those products, but multiple experts recommended ceramic alongside stainless steel and cast iron as alternatives for consumers seeking pans with some properties similar to those that use PFAS.
For Zuckerman, cookware is just one example of how federal regulators have failed consumers when it comes to secret chemicals in products. Though she hopes the Biden administration will step up oversight efforts, she is pessimistic about the scope of the problem.
“It’s impossible to know everything,” she said, calling it a case of “buyer beware.”
She added, “Consumers cannot trust anything they see unless they educate themselves first and really stick with the simplest information and follow it.”
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