Becca starts off the episode with a background on a particular type of business that often promotes nutrition products: Multi-level Marketing. Follow along to hear all about what they are, how to spot a pyramid scheme, and why you should steer clear.
Sarah then discusses a fascinating case of a dinner-party-themed MLM that was recently featured on HBO’s Murder on Middle Beach. The Gifting Tables used trusted relationships to prey on women and left thousands of women at a serious financial loss. And the final course? A possible murder.
Sarah also leaves you with a bonus story about pine nuts that will have you scratching your head.
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B: Today we are going to cover some of the history behind cooking and then we’ll dive into the wild story of a toxin that was on everyone’s favourite cooking gadgets - Teflon. We have to dedicate this episode to one of our listeners who sent in the idea to cover this topic. So to Gran Aficionado, this one goes out to you.
S: Before we dive in, I want to know - what’s your favourite kitchen appliance or gadget?
Today I am going to give you a brief history of cooking and tell you all about how kitchen technology changed life as we know it, especially for women.
So for the vast majority of human history, the only way to cook was over an open fire. Humans have been using fire to cook their meals for nearly 2 million years, and learning to cook our food is actually thought to be one of the most important evolutionary steps for humankind. Not only did it allow us to make our food taste better but it also makes it safer, more digestible, increases nutrient availability, and increases the energy density.
Let me explain. Cooking helps make our food safer by reducing the number of parasites, bacteria, and in certain cases, toxins. It also helps soften tough fibers, release more flavour, and help speed the process of chewing and digesting. This also allowed humans with smaller teeth or weaker jaws, like children and seniors, to eat more foods. It also allows you to consume more energy dense foods and reduces the amount of time required to digest those foods. This extra nutrition and energy also helped our ancestors spend less time searching for food (which entails expending calories) and less time chewing through tough plants, which also requires calories, for a lower caloric pay off.
Studies show that individuals that follow completely raw food diets have very low BMIs and up to 50% of women who eat exclusively raw foods become so malnourished that they develop amenorrhea - a lack of menstruation - which is no joke! Amenorrhea is literally your body saying that it does not have enough energy to support a pregnancy and basically shutting that system off until proper nourishment can be achieved. This happens even if the individual following a raw diet is technically consuming enough calories because research suggests that we do not fully extract the same amount of energy or protein from raw foods. So, you might be ingesting it, but that doesn’t mean your body will be able to use it properly! But before cooking existed, humans were eating raw, that’s all there was.
So cooking completely changed the amount, type, and density of nutrition that humans were able to get from food, and around the discovery of cooking we actually see a significant increase in brain size. The theory, proposed by Anthropologist Richard Wrangham, is that with cooking, humans now had the energy available to develop our intellect and our brains. Now, having a big brain is great, but it’s energetically very expensive. The brain requires more energy for it’s size than any other organ! And so it makes sense that around the same time we see the brain increase in size, we also see this increase in energy availability probably thanks to cooking. And not only do we have greater nutrition and energy availability, but we could now spend time thinking of better ways to hunt, to live, to develop culture, connect with others, create art, and develop early technologies—all the things that make us human.
Around the same time that our brains grew, and this is approximately 1.8 million years ago, fossil evidence also suggests that our teeth and digestive tract decreased in size - our heads literally got bigger and our waists shrunk in size - because we needed less space to digest raw food and our teeth didn’t need to be as powerful. This could suggest that our Homo erectus ancestors started eating softer and high-quality foods around this time, which further supports the idea that we started eating cooked foods at this time. There is some debate around when humans really gained control of fire and started using it regularly, mostly because it’s so dang long ago and it’s hard to find 2 million year old fire pits, but estimates range from 1 million to 2 million years ago.
Cooking freed up a lot of our time. For reference, great apes, who eat mostly bamboo shoots and stems, spend about 4-7 hours a day just chewing, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for intellectual development. Studies have also shown that chimpanzees, our closest relative, have many of the traits that early humans had that could indicate a capacity for cooking - so for example, chimpanzees prefer the taste of cooked food, they have shown that they have the patience to wait for food to cook, and that they can plan for and transport foods to a cooking site.
So what we do know, is that when humans gained control of fire - it was a total game changer. Fire could keep us warm, it could provide light, it could help keep predators away and also act as a weapon against them if needed, it allowed humans to create more advanced hunting tools by melting and molding materials, and it provided a method for cooking food that led to significant changes in diet and behavior, including congregating around the fire and sharing meals. So by bringing people together to eat, cooking around a fire actually laid the groundwork for human society.
Today, according to the World Health Organization, nearly 3 billion people worldwide still cook over fires. Isn’t that wild? Have you ever cooked over a fire?
In terms of more modern cooking, until about 150 years ago, most North American households used a kitchen fire and maintaining that fire around the clock was essential. Before the invention of matches in 1826, the housekeeper or the woman of the house would use a heavy metal lid and put it over the smoldering embers at night to keep them hot enough until morning and then they would kick start the fire again and it would be this on going activity throughout the day. & I read that in the pioneer days, if your kitchen fire went completely out overnight, you would have to walk to your nearest neighbours house, get some of their hot embers, and bring them back home to start your fire again.
As you can imagine, cooking over a fire took some serious time and it sounds more like an artform. You had to regulate the temperature by putting in whatever amount of wood and then gauging the temperature of the oven with your hand and adjusting the temperature by either putting more wood on or taking some off and finding that perfect temperature. That’s a lot of work for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!
There were stone and brick ovens in ancient Rome and ancient Egypt, and cast iron ovens were popular as early as the 1700s’, where you could actually have one fire source in the cast iron stove and control the temperature on the stovetop, so we’re getting closer to a modern stove. By the end of the 1800s’, gas stoves were popular and electric were invented but still mostly used for hotels and large scale operations.
Now, in news that is shocking to noone, the burden of cooking and cleaning has historically (and currently) fallen primarily on the women of the house, and the rise of different household technologies actually played a pretty significant role in women’s liberation. Now, I don’t want to minimize the decades of activism and fighting for basic human rights done by early feminists and the suffragettes for the right to vote, own property, have access to education, contraception, and all these incredible things! There is so much more to women’s rights than household appliances, but the fact is that household technology freed up a TON of time, which ultimately played a role in allowing women to enter the workforce.
In the 1800s, the typical mother worked constantly at home and had an average of 6 children. In 1900, 121 years ago, the average household spent 58 hours a week on housework, including meal preparation, laundry, and washing dishes, and by 1975 (only 75 years later) the average household spent about 18 hours a week. HUGE difference in less than a century. I calculated how much time I spend on cooking and cleaning a week, and I think it’s about 11-12 hours. I do make food multiple times a day everyday and then I added on about 3 hours for household chores. Geoff and I have a system where one cooks and one does the dishes, but I almost always cook because I’m better at it.
So I’m going to tell you the story of one woman and how her invention changed dishwashing forever. Do you have a dishwasher?
Josephine Cochran was a wealthy housewife in the 1860s’ and 70s’ and she would often throw fancy house parties using her fine china that dated back to the 1600s apparently. After one such event, the servants were hand washing the dishes and apparently one of them chipped one of her fine china plates, causing Josephine to proclaim in frustration “If nobody else is going to invent a dish washing machine, I'll do it myself!”. Which makes me laugh because no one is putting their fine china in a dishwasher anyways. & also I know she did something really cool and groundbreaking, but based on that story, she kind of sounds a little mean.
Anyways, Josephine did invent a dishwasher in her backyard, and a pretty dang good one that she was able to patent. There were a couple of models ahead of hers, but hers was the first one to use water pressure as the main method of cleaning. When her alcoholic husband died in 1883, she was only 45 and she was left to handle his numerous debts with very little cash, and so she actually went through with developing the dishwasher and founding the Garis-Cochran Manufacturing Company which later became part of KitchenAid. Using a dishwasher is estimated to save 230 hours, or nearly 10 days, per year based on an estimate of 38 minutes per day.
While new technologies did free up time, they also raised standards for cleanliness and culinary prowess and actually added to the burden of household work in some ways. Just because time is being freed up within the household, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s being used to relax, in fact many would say it just served to raise the standards of cleanliness and culinary requirements which contributed to the rise of the classic American 1950’s housewife ideal. Mixers, blenders, mincers, juicers, make elaborate cooking more feasible, but overall expectations are raised. So, while I love a kitchen gadget, it’s not all women’s liberation and roses! & I think that’s a pretty nice segue into your story about a scandalous kitchen utensil.
B: The people and communities impacted by Teflon go beyond my scope and ability to fit this within an hour episode. There are so many key players and individuals who made an impact in this case. And the main resource I used was the documentary The Devil We Know, as well as others to back up claims and add more context. They can be found in our show notes. I would highly recommend checking out that documentary to learn more about what happened as I cannot fully do it justice.
Way back when, a common kitchen appliance was using deadly toxins in order to function. And that appliance was the refrigerator. From the 1800’s to 1929 refrigerators often contained ammonia, sulfur dioxide or methyl chloride as refrigerants in order to function and keep our food cool. Many families began leaving their fridges in their backyards after multiple cases of poisonings due to refrigerant leakages during the 1920’s. Three of the major refrigerator companies at the time came together to develop less dangerous refrigerants for the consumer. These three companies were Frigidaire, General Motors and Dupont - which is a name you will want to remember. In 1928, two scientists invented Freon, which is a chlorofluorocarbon or CFC. Freon was non-toxic and nonflammable, so at the time, it seemed to resolve the issue of these poisonings. It wouldn’t be known until years later that CFCs actually destroy the ozone layer (Bellis, 2019).
On April 6th, 1938 - so 10 years after the invention of Freon, Dr. Roy J. Plunkett who was a chemist, was experimenting with gases in the lab trying to develop a new refrigerant. To his team’s surprise, one of the samples turned into a waxy white solid, aka a plastic, which we now know to be called polytetrafluoroethylene (or PTFE). He decided to test its properties even though his refrigerant experiment was a bust. It turned out that this solid substance was heat resistant, unreactive and it wouldn’t stick to anything (Lyons, 1994).
Before this component was ever used on pots & pans, it had another role - and that was in the development of nuclear weapons. Because of its inert or unreactive properties, it was perfect for keeping uranium hexafluorides contained when creating bombs during the Manhattan Project (Product Release Europe, 2019). So it was used to seal the pipes and coat the valves holding the uranium.
In 1941, PTFE resin was patented and in 1945 it was trademarked as Teflon. In the 1950’s a French engineer named Marc Gregoire figured out how to bind this slippery substance to aluminum giving birth to the first non-stick pan. He and his wife Colette began selling these pans and in 1956 they founded Tefal or as we call it in North America: “T-fal” (Brown, n.d.).
It is important to remember that Teflon is the overarching brand name used to describe the synthetic chemicals it contains. And one of these other chemicals is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8). I will call it C8 moving forward to distinguish it from PTFE, since the “P” acronyms can get a bit confusing. So right now we have PTFE which is the slippery, unreactive substance, then C8, which was another man-made chemical developed in 1947 used in the process of creating PTFE. The active component in C8 is fluorine and it is called a “surfactant” as it reduces the surface tension between two things (American Cancer Society, 2021). It was also described as an emulsifier...so I think it helps with the adhesive of PTFE to aluminum - but don’t quote me on that.
Very small amounts of C8 are found within the actual kitchen products as most of it burns off during the manufacturing process, however, a study done in the US found that 99% of Americans have C8 in their blood; and that every baby born in an industrialized country is born with this compound already in their bodies. And I am going to explain WHY this is, what this means, and what we can do moving forward.
It’s 1948 in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where there is a Dupont Teflon-manufacturing plant. At this point Teflon has been used in MANY products (other than atomic bombs), including “stain-free” couch and carpet protection sprays, paint and metal finishings on cars and airplanes, nail polish, waterproof Gore-Tex rain gear...the list goes on. Then, of course, it has also been used to create the non-stick, non-reactive, water and oil-resistant layer commonly used to coat frying pans (MOVIE).
In 1981 the 50 women working at the Parkersburg plant are suddenly all removed from their positions and reassigned to other roles. They are given very little reasoning other than the fact that working directly with C8 might be considered dangerous to pregnant women - specifically any unborn fetuses. Of 8 Dupont employee pregnancies, two children were born with facial differences - both had eyes that were somewhat malformed and one of the children was born with only one nostril. I got my hands on one of the medical documents that highlighted the outcomes of the eight children who were born to Dupont employees. In the left hand corner of this document, it specifies the amount of C8 in parts per million that were found in each babies’ blood. The lowest was 0.013 ppm. SO it was present in all of their bodies.
Sue Bailey is the mother of Bucky Bailey, who is one of the two children born with these physical differences. Dupont implied that Sue, Bucky’s mom, was to blame. Despite her obvious outrage, she continued to work there for the insurance money to support her family.
Throughout her pregnancy, she had direct contact with the chemicals and part of her job was actually to take the water that was discharged from the C8 and to pump it out into the Ohio river. Bucky was born with a higher C8 level in his blood than what was found in his mother; he required about 30 surgeries when he was a child to help him with his breathing and eyesight. One of the surgeries included inserting a balloon into his forehead to stretch the skin so that they could use it to restructure his nose. He claims the migraines associated with this were immensely painful. But despite being in-and-out of the hospital as a child, it seems like he had a pretty happy upbringing and he claims that his family was all very supportive. It was when he turned 18 or so that he started wanting an answer for what happened to him. And we will come back to Bucky later in this story, as he does end up doing some really amazing stuff.
Anyways, the male Teflon employees were assured that there was no risk to them working in the Telfon plant, so they continued working. At this point Dupont was producing about 2 million pounds of Teflon a year from this Parkersburg plant.
Now, 2 million pounds of product surely produces quite a bit of waste, and it did. Dupont made an agreement with a farmer by the name of Wilbur Tennant to purchase some of his land with the promise that they would only use it for non-hazardous waste. However, shortly after the purchase, many fish and other animals started dying on the Tennant farm. Tennant’s cows began being born with physical issues such as cloudy eyes and black teeth; and eventually his entire herd died. He claimed to have tried to work with a number of vets, but that none of them wanted to get involved. In 1998 he decided to contact a corporate defense lawyer named Rob Bilott (BILL-OT), to see if he would help with his situation. Bilott is played by Mark Ruffalo in Dark Waters if anyone has seen it. And this guy is really the one who was able to expose it all.
Over the years, Joe Kiger, a resident of Luebeck, West Virginia, which is a 7 min drive from Parkersburg, started getting more and more suspicious of what was happening in his city. In 2000 (so 19 years after the female Dupont employees were all reassigned to different roles), Joe and his wife Darlene receive a letter from the Luebeck Public Water Department mentioning that there was C8 in their water supply from the Dupont plant, BUT they stated that it was still safe at the current concentration.
Joe began picking up on some weird things around town - one of his friend’s daughters teeth went black, his neighbour’s dog developed a bunch of tumours, there were a lot of sick community members, including a few who had developed testicular cancer. He tried calling the Department of Natural Resources, the Health Department, and even spoke to a toxicologist at Dupont, but no one would give him any information. Eventually he heard about the Tennent farm, where some of the cattle developed black teeth, and he found it unusual that he also knew people whose teeth went black as well.
He decided to contact Rob Bilott (BILL-OT), to see if he would help with the case. After looking into more of the facts, Bilott asked Joe if he would be willing to help. And like that, in 2001, Joe became the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against Dupont. The lawsuit involved six different water districts and tens of thousands of people.
Billot’s evidence included that Dupont and a company called 3M who supplied the C8 to Dupont had done extensive research on the chemical and its effects dating back to the 1960’s. Studies done in 1988 indicated links to cancer and changes in DNA, deeming it highly toxic, a known animal carcinogen and a possible human carcinogen. Studies done on rats demonstrated health conditions at birth, and in many cases, eye abnormalities.
In May of 2000, 3M stopped using C8 in Scotchguard products (aka fabric protectors) because of its health implications. They promised to phase it out completely by 2002. HOWEVER; after hearing this news, Dupont decided to begin manufacturing their own C8 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. So despite their supplier, 3M, phasing it out for health reasons, Dupont continued to produce and use it.
Right away Dupont wanted to settle and offered $343 million dollars to be split up among the plaintiffs - but the plaintiffs refused to take it. Which is such a cool stand for justice.
Instead, they put together a team called the C8 Science Panel to help determine whether C8 is linked to any human disease. So far, most of the studies done were by the manufacturers on rodents. So IF this panel could prove a link, that meant that each plaintiff could sue Dupont individually for personal injury. However, if the Panel could not find a link, it was incredibly likely that a jury would find Dupont “not guilty” and they would never be tried for the same thing again. So the stakes were high.
In order to identify an association between a contaminant and a disease, you need a massive amount of people to participate. So the C8 Science Panel put out advertisements for volunteers, offering up to $400 to anyone who was willing to have their blood tested for C8 and to give the panel access to their medical records. It is estimated that around 70,000 people gave their blood - making it the largest human health study in terms of scope. It took the panel over 7 years, but in 2012 they came back determining that there was in fact a link between C8 and six known diseases. These included kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative (ULCER-ATIVE) colitis, preeclampsia and high blood cholesterol. As I said, this meant that anyone residing in the area who experienced any of these diseases with a link to C8 could sue Dupont for personal injury; and over 3,500 people did.
A 2017 news article published by Reuters and written by Arathy Nair confirmed that Dupont and Chemours (SAY THE S) Co, which is a newer sister company created by Dupont, agreed to a $671 million dollar settlement to resolve 3,550 personal injury claims (Nair, 2017). However, all the CEO’s and employees who allowed this to happen for as long as it did continue to walk free. This made me think about the 1982 Chicago Tylenol poisonings, where the medication was swapped out for cyanide. As we know, this case remains unsolved, but had they caught the person who did this, they wouldn’t let them walk free. And they killed 7 people. The effects of C8 affected people globally, and many deaths can be attributed to the decisions made at Dupont, and no one was arrested.
In addition to these settlements, Dupont was fined by the Environmental Protection Agency a total of $16.5 million dollars for failing to report the health risks linked to C8. But at the time, Dupont was selling approx. $25 billion dollars worth of products each year. So this was hardly a slap on the wrist. Someone in the Devil We Know documentary is quoted asking if “$16.5 million dollars seems fair for contaminating humanity”, which really helps put things in perspective.
So Dupont did agree to phase out C8 and by 2015 there was a manufacturing ban on C8, so no one can create it anymore. But since it is virtually impossible to destroy, a lot of it remains in our environment, and likely in our blood.
As I mentioned, Dupont created their sister company called Chemours; I am assuming to distance themselves from the lawsuits that were made against them. Chemours is now one of the largest fluorochemical manufacturers in the world. Teflon continues to make products to this day, but they found another chemical to use, and that chemical is called GEN X. GEN X is manufactured by Chemours and is an organofluorine compound. Apparently studies have shown that similar effects have been reported in rodent studies similar to the effects linked to C8 exposure. The chemistry may also affect things like how we metabolize nutrients, which is incredibly interesting as nutrition students. However, the issue that remains here is that there are few tests and regulations around bringing a new product to the market.
I wanted to give you a little follow-up on some of the key players from this story. Wilbur Tennant, the farmer whose land was used as a waste site received a settlement for an undisclosed amount in 2001. Unfortunately he was diagnosed with cancer and in 2009 he passed away from a heart attack at the age of 67. His wife, Sandra, then passed away of cancer in 2011. But without the Tennant’s story, testimony and motivation for justice, this case likely would not have picked up as much traction. They lost their livelihood, but in turn, helped get justice for so many.
Joe Kiger, the lead plaintiff in the case against Dupont, has had some of his own health issues. He has had 9 stints put in and has had a heart attack. I couldn’t figure out how much he received in the settlement, but as far as the new articles go, he is still a physical education teacher in Luebeck, West Virginia. Without his suspicion and efforts, it’s possible that the connections in this case would not have come to light until much much later; so he potentially saved a lot of people.
Sue and Bucky Bailey are also inspirations as they have dedicated a lot of their lives to figuring out what happened at the Teflon plant and in informing consumers about the dangers of C8. They both appear in the documentary The Devil We Know and Bucky actually plays himself in the movie Dark Waters, next to huge names like Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. Dupont claimed that Bucky’s physical conditions at birth were not statistically significant, and could not be directly linked to C8. I couldn’t find any information on a settlement amount for him or his mom either, but Sue was diagnosed with thyroid disease following the C8 Science Panel blood tests and unfortunately it seems like she passed away late this past year. Bucky is married and has 2 children now. There was a 50% chance that his children would be born with the same physical condition, but it turns out they weren’t passed down genetically. They have such beautiful family.
Of course, the effects of C8 were more detrimental to those living near or working at the Dupont plant. However, as we know, these effects have trickled down to the consumer level - this is likely through the products we use and any industrial waste. So WHAT CAN WE DO?
Simply put, we can avoid non-stick cookware. And consider replacing any pans from before the early 2000’s as these may contain C8 residues.
Some alternatives cookware options include those made of ceramic, aluminum, stainless steel, cast iron or copper, without “non-stick” coatings. Anything “non-stick” does deserve a bit more research. And of course look into the pros and cons for each type of pan, because, for example, uncoated aluminum pans may also leach into your food. So do your own cost analysis.
If it is not obviously stated, call the companies that manufacture the pans to see what products they use.
Check for local fish advisories and don’t purchase or consume contaminated fish
Lastly, contact your local health department to inquire about water contamination levels. We in Ontario, Canada likely have little to worry about, but I did check the Government of Canada’s website, and we do have a maximum acceptable concentration of C8 in our drinking water, meaning that it's possible. The maximum amount is 0.0002 mg/L in Canadian drinking water (Government of Canada, 2016).
The take home message here is to continue being an informed consumer. And even by listening to this episode, or our podcast for that matter, you are doing exactly that.
S: Do you have any experiences with MLMs?