Can Nonstick Make You Sick?

For Bucky Bailey's parents, the 22-year-old's wedding day in August of this year was one they feared might never come, given how their son started life. Bucky was born in January of 1981 with only one nostril and a deformed right eye.

"The doctors told us not to get attached to him because he probably wouldn't make it through the night," Sue Bailey, Bucky's mother, told "20/20." "They didn't know what to say. … I mean, they had never seen a baby like this before. … I cried so many tears I couldn't cry another tear."

Today, two decades later, scarred from more than 30 surgeries, Bucky is coming forward and telling "20/20" he wants to know who or what is responsible for a life that has not been easy.

"I've never, ever felt normal. You can't feel normal when you walk outside and every single person looks at you. And it's not that look of 'he's famous' or 'he's rich,' " Bucky said. "It's that look of 'he's different.' You can see it in their eyes."

Chemicals Widely Detected in Blood

The Bailey family and others lay the blame at the place where Sue worked when she became pregnant with Bucky — the huge DuPont plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., where workers mix the chemicals for Teflon, the famed nonstick substance used on pots and pans.

Teflon, a product advertised as making life easy, is also used in a different form to keep stains off carpets and clothing. DuPont calls these products the housewives' best friend.

Teflon and the chemicals used in its production have grown into a $2 billion-a-year industry. This includes ammonium perfluorooctanoate, known as C-8, which has been linked to cancer, organ damage and other health effects in tests on laboratory animals.

The same chemical, C-8, was found not only in the blood of Sue Bailey when she became pregnant but, it turns out, is in the blood of virtually every American, in much smaller but still detectable levels. This discovery make this a story that reaches far beyond what happened in one small town in West Virginia.

"In retrospect, this may seem like one of the biggest, if not the biggest, mistakes the chemical industry has ever made," said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group, an activist organization.

"And how could they not be in our blood?" Houlihan said. "They're in such a huge range of consumer products. We're talking about Teflon, Stainmaster, Gore-tex, Silverstone. So if you buy clothing that's coated with Teflon or something else that protects it from dirt and stains, those chemicals can absorb directly through the skin."

Houlihan and her colleague Kris Thayer, senior scientist at EWG, have been poring over 20 years of confidential DuPont papers and other industry documents on Teflon.

Highest C-8 Levels Found in Children

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, some of the highest C-8 levels were found in some of the children tested. Even DuPont says that it cannot rule out that Teflon-connected products, such as Stainmaster carpet treatment, give off the chemical, although at blood levels the company says are far too small to be a problem.

"We are confident when we say that the facts, the scientific facts, demonstrate that the material is perfectly safe to use," Uma Chowdhry, Dupont's vice president of research and development, told "20/20." Chowdhry is the DuPont executive chosen to defend Teflon, and she claims that the substance is completely safe, despite the fact that the key chemical, C-8, is in everyone's blood.

"We do not believe there are any adverse health effects," she said. "There are lots of chemicals that are present in our blood."

Now the unexpected discovery of the almost universal contamination of Americans' blood from C-8, combined with worrisome laboratory studies, has led to a high priority investigation by the EPA of the chemical's risks.

"It's a potential threat," said Houlihan. "And the EPA's moving fast in studying this. Human blood levels are too close to the levels that harm lab animals. That's why they're moving too fast."

The ‘Teflon Flu’

There is another more immediate health problem from Teflon, according to the Environmental Working Group. Cooking with Teflon can make a person sick with a temporary flu if a nonstick pan gets overheated.

"It feels like the flu," said Houlihan, "headaches, chills, backache, temperature between 100 and 104 degrees."

DuPont says that fumes are released from the pan when it is overheated, which it says occurs at temperatures that are not reached during normal cooking.

As the Environmental Working Group showed "20/20" in a kitchen demonstration, however, a pan can reach that temperature in just a few minutes.

"At 554 degrees Fahrenheit," said Houlihan, "studies show ultrafine particles start coming off the pan. These are tiny little particles that can embed deeply into the lungs."

The hotter the pan gets, the more chemicals are released. "At 680, toxic gases can begin to come off of heated Teflon," Houlihan said.

It turns out, DuPont has known about the "Teflon flu" for years.

"You get some fumes, yes," said Chowdhry, "and you get a flu-like symptom, which is reversible." Chowdhry said the flu is temporary and lasts at most for a couple of days. She also added that a warning about the flu, while not on the pans themselves, is on the DuPont Web site.

In the demonstration for "20/20," a piece of bacon was just getting crisp when the Teflon pan went beyond the initial warning point of 500 degrees.

"I've never cooked bacon," said Chowdhry. "I can't comment."

The Environmental Working Group has tried without success to get the government to order that warning labels be put on nonstick pans.

Bird Owners Beware

One consumer warning DuPont does issue about Teflon fumes involves not humans, but birds. The fumes from overheated Teflon pans can be lethal to them.

Shelby Greenman told "20/20" that her pet cockatoo keeled over in its cage down the hall from the kitchen after all the water boiled out of a Teflon pan.

"I didn't smell anything, I didn't see any smoke," she said. "As soon as they inhale it, it's over. There's nothing they can do to help them."

Bird owner groups say thousands of birds have been killed by Teflon fumes. DuPont says this occurs because birds have small and sensitive lungs.

"People should not have birds in an unventilated kitchen," said Chowdhry.

Long-Term Effects?

The greatest concern about C-8 is that it may cause possible long-term harm to a generation that has grown up using Teflon products. Scientists say that if there are any long-term effects, the first place they'd look for them would be in the people who have had the greatest exposure to the chemicals — the people who work, live and drink the water near the Teflon plant in West Virginia.

"With neighbors like DuPont, you don't need no enemies," said Earl Tennant, a local resident.

Now a lawsuit brought by local residents, including the family of Bucky Bailey, accuses DuPont of trying to cover up what the company knew about Teflon's risks.

"We have alleged in the lawsuit that DuPont has been well aware of these problems for many years," said Cincinnati attorney Robert A. Bilott, who filed the case.

Perhaps most telling is an internal DuPont document, only now made public, that shows the company knew that of eight women working on the Teflon line in 1981, two had children with birth defects — not just Sue Bailey, but a second mother whom "20/20" was able to locate.

Click here to see the company document on birth defects.

The other mother, Karen Robinson, gave birth to a son who also had a defect involving his eye. "DuPont should be held accountable for their actions in keeping all this secret from the public," Robinson told "20/20."

Now a grade school principal, Robinson said she only recently found out that she had an extremely high level of the Teflon chemical C-8 in her blood. She fears that her second child, a daughter, has also been affected.

"I gave birth to a daughter. Two years ago, we discovered that she has a birth defect that affects her kidneys. One kidney did not grow. One kidney grew to three times its normal size," she said.

DuPont denies that it was trying to cover up what happened to the children of Karen Robinson and Sue Bailey. It says the reason that the company did not disclose the birth defect study to the government for 22 years was because there was nothing to connect the defects with the chemical C-8. DuPont continues to insist that Teflon and the chemicals used in it are safe for its workers to handle.

Chowdhry said that in the general population incidences of birth defects are "not uncommon."

"We have had scientists pore over the data. In the realm of scientific fact, this is not considered a statistically significant sample," she said. "All the other children were normal. And since then we have not seen a preponderance of birth defects."

Chowdhry acknowledged that DuPont has not done a subsequent study to examine birth defects among its workers.

More studies of Teflon chemicals are now happening, but Bucky and others wonder why it has taken so long. What happened to Bucky Bailey has become part of the federal government's high priority review of whether Teflon and its chemicals are safe.

"I have to think about if I want to have children or not. And I cannot put them through what I went through," Bucky said.

Pending its review, the EPA says it is not now advising consumers to stop using Teflon products. The results of the agency's review of the safety of C-8 and of Teflon-related products that may release it are expected in coming months.

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