What Is Teflon And Why You Should Avoid It

David Quilty

23 Comments

July 31, 2007
Teflon dangers
Teflon dangers



Teflon is a household name, found in many homes as the cookware of choice. It is easy to understand why. Non-stick pots, pans and bakeware are extremely convenient to use and of course to clean. Who wants to spend hours scrubbing cooked on food off after cooking a meal?

But What Exactly Is Teflon?

Teflon is the trademarked name for the chemical Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). It is used in a variety of ways, because it is very non-reactive, due to the strength of the carbon-flourine bonds. It is also ‘hydrophobic’ meaning that it cannot be wet by water.

It is therefore a popular choice for cook-ware, as well as stain resistant clothes (such as school uniform) and stain resistant carpets. PTFE is also used as a repellant of grease in food wrap, and containers including pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags.

Teflon
Teflon

So What Is The Problem?

It is in widespread use, and has been since the 1940s, so why are we worried about it all of a sudden?

Manufacturers of Teflon have always advised that their cookware should not be heated to extremely high temperatures. They have maintained that the coatings on pans and other products will not emit hazardous chemicals through normal use. “significant decomposition of the coating will occur only when temperatures exceed about 660 degrees F (340 degrees C). These temperatures alone are well above the normal cooking range.”

However, the following quote taken from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests otherwise:

In new tests conducted by a university food safety professor, a generic non-stick frying pan preheated on a conventional, electric stovetop burner reached 736°F in three minutes and 20 seconds, with temperatures still rising when the tests were terminated. A Teflon pan reached 721°F in just five minutes under the same test conditions, as measured by a commercially available infrared thermometer.

DuPont studies show that the Teflon off-gases toxic particulates at 446°F.

At 680°F Teflon pans release at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, two global pollutants, and MFA, a chemical lethal to humans at low doses.

At temperatures that DuPont scientists claim are reached on stovetop drip pans (1000°F), non-stick coatings break down to a chemical warfare agent known as PFIB, and a chemical analog of the WWII nerve gas phosgene.

So in just two to five minutes of normal stovetop use, the coating breaks down to a point at which it releases toxic chemicals into the environment – which is typically your kitchen. The other concern is that particles of PTFE can flake off, but it is thought that this does not cause harm when ingested as the chemical is inert when solid.

Teflon
Teflon

What Harm Can Teflon Cause To Health?

The fumes released from non-stick cookware have been known to be highly toxic to birds, as many pet birds die from ‘Teflon toxicosis’ each year. This is caused when their lungs hemorrhage and fill with fluid, causing suffocation. The deaths usually occur during or immediately after using non-stick cookware, in normal scenarios.

When humans are exposed to the fumes they can experience a condition known as ‘polymer fume fever’. This is characterized by flu-like symptoms, including headaches, chills, fever, coughing and chest tightness. The side effects do not usually develop until a few hours after exposure to the gases, and therefore many people do not make a connection between the cause and effect. The long-term effects of such exposure has not been studied. It is possible that many cases that we assume are ‘normal-flu’ are actually caused by Teflon.

As well as health concerns, the manufacture of non-stick compounds including PFCs also pose a serious risk to the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says PFCs present “persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree.teflonpans

Is It Possible To Use Teflon Safely?

The best option is to avoid non-stick cookware altogether. Safer choices are cast iron and stainless steel pots and pans. Oven-safe glass is the preferred choice for baking.

However, if you currently have non-stick, or teflon products, and are not in a position to change any time soon, there are measures that you can take to protect yourself and your family as much as possible.

Firstly, never preheat non-stick pans at a high heat. This scenario is one that must be avoided at all costs. When cooking with non-stick cookware, opt for the lowest possible temperature, while insuring that your food is cooked through safely. Do not use teflon bakeware in the oven over 500 degrees. Always use the extractor fan when using non-stick pans on the stove to remove some of the gases that might be emitted.

Also, be sure to keep pet birds out of the kitchen!

Another thing to be aware of is the self-cleaning function inside your oven. If you have this, do not use it. The high temperatures can cause toxic fumes to be released from the non-stick interior surface.

So while there are no conclusive reports, or long-term studies on the implications of using Teflon and other non-stick cookware regarding human health, there is enough evidence to suggest we should avoid it where possible.

Non-Stick Pan
Non-Stick Pan

Would you like a side of polytetrafluoroethylene with your eggs? Me neither! I have opted for cast iron and stainless steel in my kitchen.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any experience, positive or negative of using non-stick pans? Do you skip the non-stick?

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Comments

  1. I am a plastics engineer, so I know quite a bit about how different materials break down. Honestly, PTFE doesn’t worry me, however I will be looking into it a bit more. What does worry me is the breakdown of polycarbonate in food products, the precursor there is highly toxic. I just wanted to say though that your claim to switch to aluminum pots may be a step backwards. Any acidic conditions, i.e. tomato sauce will just break down the aluminum and you end up ingesting that. However, it is your choice! :)

  2. If only it were that simple, Brian. Unfortunately, like the clip suggests, temperatures above 500 degrees are reached very quickly — more quickly than most would assume — and the nonstick coating begins to break down before the temperature even reaches 500.

    >would you like a side of polytetrafluoroethylene or perfluorooctanoic acid with your eggs?

  3. Mobius – Why use it at all when there are alternatives? Even if I probably won’t overheat it, I don’t take the chance. And that’s OK steven george, we all don’t. :-)

  4. OK – so none of you has ever read the proper instructions on how to use a non-stick pan then.

    Firstly, non-stick pans should only be purchased when they are heavyweights. Any and every chef will tell you that lightweight pans are essentially useless: dropping food in immediately lowers the temperature of the pan, and food boils rather than fies.

    So – throw out all those lightweight non-stick pans.

    Stick with known-good brands like Le Creuset.

    Secondly, non-stick pans must be used in the following manor (particularly over a gas flame):

    The flame or element should be approximately half the size of the pan, AND NO MORE. Use only the lowest heat setting on gas, or a temperature which only JUST makes butter bubble if you drop a dob on it.

    DO NOT ever turn the flame up to maximum.

    Let the pan do the work – not the element. Cooking at too high a temperature is not good. Smoking pans are pans which are too hot. No pan should EVER smoke!

    Whe3n you have finished cooking, do NOT drop the pan into water, or cool it quickly! Let the pan cool down naturally. This prolongs the lifetime of the non stick surface.

    I think you will find that if you follow these simple rules, the temperature in the pan will NEVER exceed the temperature at which dangerous chemicals are released, or where the Teflon starts to denature.

  5. It has been well-known for years that Teflon fumes will kill pet birds, even large parrots kept in rooms far away from the kitchen, if the Teflon pan is allowed to over-heat. If it kills birds, it probably doesn’t do us any good! Also, it’s used in countless other products, such as self-cleaning stoves and toaster ovens, not just pans. Watch for it!

  6. Switch to Stainless steel Pans?

    Strainless steel =
    85% Iron
    15% chromium

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stainless_steel

    Okay happy with Iron as this is a required element for the body
    but chromium? I don’t think it has an RDA.

    Probably best off using cast iron.

    That will keep your pecker up.

    Regards

    Stephen

  7. Looks like I am wrong

    We do need Chromium

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromium
    Trivalent chromium (Cr(III), or Cr3+) is required in trace amounts for sugar metabolism in humans (Glucose Tolerance Factor) and its deficiency may cause a disease called chromium deficiency. In contrast, hexavalent chromium is very toxic and mutagenic when inhaled as popularized by the film Erin Brockovich. Cr(VI) has not been established as a carcinogen when not inhaled but in solution it is well established as a cause of allergic contact dermatitis (ACD).[2]

    I wonder what you get when you cook with stainless steel?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromium_deficiency
    In the United States, the dietary guidelines for adequate daily chromium intake were lowered from 50-200 µg for an adult to 30- 35 µg (adult male) and to 20-25 µg (adult female).[1] Recently it has been shown that the popular dietary supplement chromium picolinate generates chromosome damage in hamster cells.

    Oh well.

    Still think I will stick with cast iron.
    Excuse the pun. Teflon,stick, cast iron :-)

    No I don’t get out much.

    Grin

  8. got here via SU…

    Allen: Good point except for the fact that most of us eat meat. I dunno about you but raw chicken just doesn’t appeal…

    And as far as the arguments against using stainless steel, or even aluminum, give me a break. No matter what, they are safer than Dupont’s poisons. Once these chemicals get inside of you they NEVER leave. PFOA is actually worse than their final product (teflon), hence the massive amount of cancer and birth defects with the Dupont factory workers.

    Unfortunately, Dupont has a lot of clout with our Government. Hence the “2015” date they were given to “reduce” the amount of deadly and persistent chemicals they produce. 2015 might as well be an eternity away…

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