Saturday, February 13, 2010

Teflon in the Food Chain and the Precautionary Principle

I was out with friends last night who wanted to know about the teflon issue, but find my posts so long they can't get to the end of them. Good to know. I'll try to keep this (and future posts) short and to the point. Try is the operative word there.

In a nutshell, the region is encouraging residents to re-use microwave popcorn bags as green bin liners.  In my previous post and in my letter to the city I included lots of sourced research from the FDA and EPA that the chemicals in the bags are 100 times as toxic as teflon coated pans, that it's readily absorbed, and that it seriously affects the liver and can pass through the placenta to a fetus..... 

I sent an e-mail to Brenda Halloran, and a reply came back with that e-mail attached from a representative of Waste Management that said this (disclosure warning be damned): 

"I have not seen any medical research to indicate that the inclusion of this item in the green bin is inappropriate or a health risk.... With regard to perfluorinated chemicals in general (including both PFOS and PFOA), Health Canada states that "exposure to PFCs in food is not expected to pose a significant risk to human health".....In addition to our own government's research, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in specific reference to PFOA, states that "there are no steps that EPA recommends that consumers take to reduce exposures to PFOA."

Okay, if you check the Health Canada link, the entire quotation is about PFCs that get in food from  packaging around the food not being a serious problem.  I question that, but even if it's the case that it's entirely safe to have wrapped around our food, putting the bags in the green bin means this stuff will become the growing compound for our food.  It's not quite the same use. 

If you check the EPA link, it's talking about "routine use of consumer products" not being a concern.  But mashing it up and spraying it on food is hardly routine use.  We're doing something new here that hasn't been tested for public safety.  And that link also explains why the EPA is studying the stuff in the first place:

"PFOA is very persistent in the environment, is found at very low levels both in the environment and in the blood of the general U.S. population, remains in people for a very long time, [and] causes developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals."

Everyone should be aware that it's very difficult for regulatory agencies to say something negative about a product with many manufacturing uses.  Industry will clobber them.  Give The Secret History of the War on Cancer a read if you want to learn more.  So they take their bloody time getting to a point where they say definitively that this product should be banned.  It's truly frightening.    

But there's this thing called the Precautionary Principle that we could go by instead of these regulatory agencies.  This states that, "When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."  It's being widely used in many applications worldwide because we just can't wait for scientists to say for sure how much exposure to whatever toxin is too much.

We don't need microwave popcorn bags in the green bins.  Nobody benefits significantly from using them in that way.  And I'm baffled that Waste Management didn't, after my first e-mail, just say, "Good point.  We'll suggest they stay out of the bin in future."  Instead they're trying to prove that there's really nothing to worry about.

This is a funny city.  And I'm sorry I failed in my mission; this is yet another long post to drudge your way through.  Congrats to those who made it!!


Michael D said...

You might consider contacting Region of Waterloo Public Health, which I'm sure has an opinion on the issue. In addition to contacting them or others at the Region, you could write a letter to the editor at The Record and see if they may want to take up the issue. This isn't something that can legitimately be brushed off as trivial.

Marie said...

Hi Michael,
I sent in a letter to the paper already. I never thought of Public Health though. Thanks for the tip. I definitely think this is something that needs more attention. Actually the entire green bin program - many people toss everything in there, unaware it will enter the food chain. Scary!