From roller-coasters to horror movies, Americans love to be scared. What makes these frights so enjoyable is the knowledge that the underlying threat isn’t real. In the end, the hero always destroys the villain, and after few minutes of nauseating ups-and-downs, the amusement ride is over.
Far too often, though, trial lawyers try to alarm the public about some new health scare without revealing that the threat they’re talking about is just as non-existent as the boogeymen from Hollywood’s latest thriller.
The newest horror story involves an alleged threat from Teflon-coated cookware. Two Florida-based law firms have filed a $5 billion class-action suit in eight states against Teflon manufacturer DuPont for “failing” to warn consumers about the product’s alleged dangers.
One component used to make Teflon is a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which causes liver cancer in lab animals at high doses. While the Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a “likely” carcinogen, it is not clear whether PFOA actually does cause cancer in humans, or how much exposure is needed to do so.
In August, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine professor Edward Emmett announced that his research, funded by the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health, found neither toxic effects nor a higher cancer risk among people who live near a West Virginia Teflon production facility, even though they had as much as 80 times the level of PFOA in their blood as average Americans.
But that doesn’t bother attorney Alan Kluger. “I don’t have to prove that it causes cancer,” says Kluger. “I only have to prove that DuPont lied in a massive attempt to continue selling their product.”
There is still one problem with Kluger’s legal theory, however. There isn’t any PFOA in the Teflon itself, or on Teflon-coated crockery. The chemical is used early in the production process but is destroyed before finishing.
According to researchers in both Denmark and China, consumers are not exposed to PFOA from the use of non-stick cookware. A U.S. study – funded by DuPont but peer reviewed and published in the prestigious journal Environment Science & Technology – detected no PFOA in any of the non-stick cookware samples tested.
In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Teflon for cookware and found it safe for consumers. The EPA says that “there aren’t any steps that EPA recommends that consumers take to reduce exposures to PFOA,” and it “does not believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using any consumer or industrial-related products.”
You might think that would be the end of the story. But the typical formula used in these big class action suits is to trump up some bogus health claim, demand a quick settlement, and then cut and run before the facts are in.
The lawyers know they can count on people’s fear of chemicals and their natural concern for the health of their families to generate public outrage. Teflon has been around for half a century, and the brand is a household name. What better way to arouse the public’s ire than to vilify a product that nearly every American has used?
The lawyers also know they can count on a major corporation like DuPont to try and protect its reputation. In 2004, for example, the company paid an $82 million out-of-court settlement to the residents of Parkersburg, West Virginia, who alleged that PFOA from a nearby DuPont plant had tainted their water supplies – despite the lack of any evidence.
Evidence is coming in now, though, and it’s not good for the lawyers. That University of Pennsylvania study examined neighbors of the Parkersburg claimants who used the same water source, yet it found no harmful effects.
Still, the Florida firms involved in the Teflon suit are probably expecting another cash-rich settlement, because companies often prefer that route to the negative publicity that results from even a successful court defense. This time, let’s hope that DuPont decides to fight all the way to court and expose the class action charade.
After all, baseless health scares like this one harm all of society by jeopardizing safe and beneficial products, and harming manufacturers and their employees. They also reinforce the defenseless notion that we should fear anything that comes from a factory, and they distract us from real health threats that we can and should address.
From now on, let’s just leave the scare stories to Hollywood.