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EPA: Compound in Teflon may cause cancer

Teflon is everywhere, and now an EPA advisory panel says it may cause cancer. How worried should you be? NBC's Tom Costello reports.

With five kids, it seems Barbara Andrukonis always has something cooking in a pan. But it's the chemical compound used to make the pan's Teflon coating that has her — and an EPA panel — concerned.

"I think that anything that sort of isn't the way that nature made it has to have some type of problem with it for us humans," says Andrukonis.

The compound is perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. Trace amounts of it have shown up in blood samples taken from people across the country. When rats and mice were exposed to PFOA in far greater amounts, they developed brain tumors. Now, an EPA advisory panel reports, "PFOA is a likely carcinogen in humans."

Activists have been pushing the EPA to regulate PFOA for years.

"Our concern is that this is a very unique chemical," says Richard Wiles with the Environmental Working Group. "It lasts, literally, for eternity, and now it has been determined to be a likely human carcinogen. That ranks it up there with DDT, PCBs and dioxin as a very serious hazard. It needs to be banned."

Teflon, and the products that contain PFOA, are everywhere — from pots and pans, to Gore-Tex jackets, carpet coatings, computer chips, engine fuel lines and even pizza boxes.

Teflon’s manufacturer, DuPont, says it doesn't know why PFOA is turning up in human blood samples nationwide. It says there is no PFOA left in Teflon-coated pans during cooking because the PFOA is destroyed during the manufacturing process. And DuPont says its tests indicate that PFOA is not a threat.

"Clearly, based on our assessment of the science, we do not believe this poses any cancer risk to the general population," says Dr. Robert Rickard, DuPont's chief toxicologist.

There are non-stick coatings that don't contain Teflon, but the EPA must decide whether PFOA should be a regulated toxin.

"The EPA is prepared to act, but we do have to have a pretty complete understanding of the risk and the exposures," says Charlie Auer, EPA's director of pollution prevention.

The issue now before the EPA is whether a chemical that's become a part of everyday life is also a threat.