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Pancakes in a frying pan


What a load of crêpe! Why industry wants to keep PFAS in your kitchen

The hot topics in the chemicals debate right now are PFAS-free solar cells and semiconductors. But suddenly it seems like time has rolled back: France is talking about frying pans again

Published on 17 Jun 2024

In the foothills of the French Alps lies the town of Rumilly, the self-proclaimed “frying pan capital of the world”. This is the home of Tefal, the world-famous maker of non-stick frying pans, owned by French cookware giant SEB.

The factory makes 35 million items a year, mostly for export. To make them non-stick, it coats them in PFTE, a subgroup of the PFAS substances whose toxic potential is causing world-wide concern.

Frying pans are the PFAS-product par excellence, the poster-child for the global anti-PFAS movement. So you might think SEB would be doing everything it can to introduce safer alternatives.

You would be wrong.

A new law in France is seeking to ban PFAS in a range of consumer goods. But a loophole will allow SEB to continue dipping 35 million pans a year in PTFE.

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The frying pan hits back

In April, SEB mobilised its workers against the PFAS ban. The company’s chief executive claimed 3,000 French jobs would be lost and it bussed 450 workers to Paris to protest.

It mobilised its powerful friends. France’s industry minister pleaded to leave cookware out of the PFAS ban, saying PTFE is a PFAS that will be judged “non-dangerous”.

SEB’s aggressive defence of PFTE is part of a wider move by the cookware industry to water down an impending Europe-wide ban on PFAS, proposed by five EU countries last year.

In a paid-for editorial in Politico, the influential Brussels website, the Federation of European Cookware, Cutlery and Houseware Industries says a ban on PTFE would hit workers and consumers. Fluoropolymers such as PTFE “are already known to be safe across their whole lifecycle”, the organisation claims.

Wonderful, wonderful PFAS: outside the Tefal factory in Rumilly

This nonsense won’t stick

Claims that PTFE is safe should be taken with a whole sack of salt. Independent scientists point to the PFAS emissions that commonly occur in the manufacture of PTFE. In other words, to make PTFE, you need PFAS – lots of it.

The effects of this are obvious in wastewater samples near Tefal’s factory in Rumilly. Two years ago the town’s water supply had to be cut off because of high levels of PFOA – a harmful PFAS substance which, before the EU banned it in 2017, was used to produce PTFE.

PTFE in turn is produced in nearby Lyon by Arkema, whose factory sold non-stick coatings to Tefal. Arkema is facing criminal charges for polluting the Rhône river with PFAS, helping to give the area its nickname: Chemical Valley.

The dossier calling for an EU ban on PFAS spells out why PTFE should be included in that ban. PFAS are used to make PTFE, it confirms, there are doubts over its safety in the kitchen, and there is no safe option for disposing of discarded products. Furthermore, there are plenty of high-performing alternatives, it concludes, as evidenced by a booming market for non-stick pans without PTFE.

“We can turn off the tap and repair the damage of 80 years of pollution”

Anne Souyris, Paris senator

SEB says it can remove PFAS from the production of PTFE and scale up its collection and recycling of used cookware products. But if PTFE is as safe as the company claims, why change how it is manufactured and disposed of?

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

If it survives the impending election in France, this PFAS legislation is a major step forward for Europe. It halts the manufacture, import and sale of textiles, cosmetics and wax products containing PFAS and imposes a tax on companies whose activities lead to PFAS emissions.

“With this law, we can turn off the tap and repair the damage of 80 years of pollution,” said Paris senator Anne Souyris when the law was passed.

But leaving out cookware leaves experts dumbfounded.

“It’s such a head-scratching decision by France,” says Dr Jonatan Kleimark, PFAS expert at ChemSec. “Literally, no one in the global PFAS debate is discussing the continued use of PFAS in frying pans since there are so many good alternatives already in use. Banning this use is the textbook definition of low-hanging fruit.”

Both the left and right in parliament initially agreed on including cookware in the ban – they just couldn’t fix the date when it should come into force. As a result, this paragraph was simply deleted.

“If and when the law goes back to parliament for its second reading, re-instating that paragraph would send a message that France is ready to lead Europe out of the PFAS crisis – and not dive head first back into it,” Dr Kleimark says.