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.
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.
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.“
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.
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?