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'Dark Waters': Here's the toxic reason why you should toss nonstick pans you bought prior to 2014

AOL.com Editors

"Dark Waters" is generating Oscar buzz — and renewed concern about potentially toxic kitchenware and other household items.

The real-life story, which is in theaters now, follows Ohio attorney Rob Bilott (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) as he steadfastly pursues a case against DuPont, the chemical company that created Teflon. If you cook with nonstick pans purchased prior to 2014, you can assume they're coated with Teflon. It's how the cookware gets its waxy texture.

It was more than two decades ago that Bilott first began investigating reports of wide-ranging serious illness — various cancers, birth defects, rapid tooth decay and more — that would eventually be definitively traced to a man-made chemical involved in the manufacturing of Teflon. That specific chemical compound is called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. Here's what you need to know.

Sure, we've all said, "Eh, everything causes cancer," but the risks of PFOA are not over-dramatized. Conclusive studies have determined that high exposure to PFOA is correlated to illnesses including kidney cancer, testicular cancer and ulcerative colitis, among other serious ailments. Because it was so commonly used in consumer products, the unfortunate reality is that PFOA is present in just about every human body in America, and it's important to individually protect against additional exposure.

In May 2019, more than 180 countries agreed to ban production of PFOA and some select other chemicals. The U.S. is still weighing possible restrictions; it faces major resistance from certain powerful companies and lobbyists. (If you want to learn more about how to protect the health of your family and community, check out Fight Forever Chemicals, which advocates for improved accountability.)

Investing in a water filter is a simple and effective form of protection. Residents of the rural West Virginia town at the heart of "Dark Waters" may (or may not) have been an extreme case, but their decades-long consumption of contaminated water was found to be the root cause of devastating long-term disease. (Notably, the research was conducted in the mid-2000s, which means many people are likely yet to even know what medical issues will develop over time.)

PFOA isn't the only chemical that can appear in your water, and the effects of many unregulated chemicals still haven't been explored. An effective water filtration system will weed out chemicals, pesticides, lead, bacteria and other unhealthy elements.

You should at least entertain the idea of abandoning nonstick pans entirely. Thanks in no small part to Bilott's extensive legal efforts, PFOA is no longer used in the production of nonstick cookware. That 2013 decision came after years of scrupulous research specifically into PFOA. But during AOL's recent conversation with Bilott, the attorney noted that the replacement chemical compound, PFTE, has not undergone its own extensive investigation. (In fact, there are a lot of unregulated chemicals that are long overdue for in-depth studies.)

AOL asked Bilott point-blank whether he uses nonstick pans in his own home, and the answer was immediate: "No."

If you do want to continue using nonstick cookware, you should replace items purchased prior to 2014. As mentioned above, the phase-out of PFOA didn't go into effect until 2013, which means that if you bought an item produced any earlier than that, it is coated with the known toxic chemical.

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