TEFLON AND YOUR TOXICITY
ROSE MARIE WILLIAMS
Marie is a health and environmental advocate, writing for TLDP
and other publications.
OF THE SAFETY ZONE INTO THE TOXIC FRYING PAN
Teflon-coated pans were first introduced, they practically sold
themselves. Two generations later, we are once again learning
that better living through chemistry often carries a hidden
are all familiar with the wonders of non-stick cookware. Omelettes
slide off pans and scrubbing stuck-on food is no longer a chore.
Teflon and non-stick coatings (all spawned from Teflon) have
found application in myriad other products, too. We now have
stain-resistant drapery and upholstery fabrics, Stainmaster
carpets, and Gore-Tex water-repellent clothing. Microwave popcorn
is packaged in oil-resistant bags and pizza boxes are lined
with grease-resistant coatings, as is packaging for bakery items,
fast food, and candy. Firefighting foam, computer chips, phone
cables, and even lamps are coated with non-stick chemicals.
not so surprising, then, that recent studies show 95 percent
of Americans have detectable levels of Teflon-related chemicals
in their blood. With so much Teflon flowing through our veins
one could hope for slippery blood, less plaque build-up, and
thus fewer strokes and heart attacks. Alas, that is not the
case. Instead, health concerns about Teflon are coming to light.
The chemicals from which non-stick coatings are made, and fumes
from heated cookware, are toxic to birds and laboratory animals.
Virtually no studies have verified the safety of Teflon and
related chemicals among the millions of people using non-stick
cookware and coated products, though several of the off-gassed
chemicals are considered to be highly toxic and are persistent
in the environment.
is the brand name for the synthetic chemical polytetrafluoroethylene
(a term that does not easily slide off the tongue), or PTFE.
It was introduced for commercial use by DuPont in 1946. The
original version had the problem of being easily scratched by
ordinary cooking utensils. Instead of getting trace amounts
of iron from food cooked in cast-iron pots, we were getting
trace amounts of Teflon. Silverstone, the next generation of
non-stick cookware, is more durable than Teflon. It is chemically
related to Teflon, however, as are all non-stick coatings in
1960 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Teflon
for contact with food, based on a study of cooking hamburgers
on an old, worn Teflon pan. This did, in fact, result in higher
levels of Teflon chemicals in the meat, but the FDA decided
it was not a health risk. Since then, neither government nor
industry has conducted full-scale tests on the safety of this
ubiquitous consumer product.
potential health risks to humans and animals managed to slip
by our governmental regulatory agencies back then. But now the
Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-partisan, nongovernmental
watchdog agency conducting its own studies on Teflon-related
toxins, is raising serious questions about the health risks
associated with Teflon and other non-stick chemicals. Jane Houlihan,
vice president of research at EWG, comments, "How could
they not be in our blood? They're in such a huge range of consumer
products: Teflon, Stainmaster, Gore-Tex, Silverstone. If you
buy clothing that's coated with Teflon, or something else that
protects it from dirt and stains, those chemicals can absorb
directly through the skin."
PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, used to make Teflon) is known
to cause cancer and other health problems in laboratory animals,
and Houlihan is especially concerned because in people, "blood
levels are too close to the levels that harm lab animals."
animal studies show that other chemicals used in food packaging,
carpets, and clothing break down into PFOA in the environment,
as does Teflon when ingested. The FDA says that PFOA in microwave
popcorn bags migrates into the oil during heating, but that
levels are too low to be of concern.
US EPA spokesperson Susan B. Hazen indicated in a January 2006
Washington Post article by Juliet Eilperin that consumers
using household products with non-stick coatings need not worry,
because scientific studies have not established an increased
risk of cancer. But then, no studies have been done to clearly
establish there is not a risk.
There are two
concerns with Teflon and other coatings:
the potential toxicity of residual chemicals used to make
-- the release of chemicals during product usage
is a key chemical in the first category. It is listed by the
US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a persistent chemical
and potential human carcinogen (cancer-causing chemical). DuPont
maintains that all Teflon-coated cookware is safe because no
PFOA remains in the finished product. But the company acknowledges
that when heated in excess of 660 degrees Fahrenheit (340 degrees
C), an empty Teflon-coated pan can release toxic fumes into
the air. Independent tests show that during preheating on a
regular kitchen stove, non-stick cookware can easily reach a
temperature of 736 degrees -- in as little as about three and
a half minutes -- and release toxic fumes. Two chemicals in
those gases are linked to cancer or tumours in laboratory animals
(PFOA and TFE, tetrafluoroethylene), two are potent global warming
gases (PFB, perfluorobutane; and CF4, tetrafluoromethane), and
one is used as a warfare agent (MFA, monofluoroacetic acid).
At higher temperatures achievable on kitchen stove tops, additional
extremely toxic gases are released, including PFIB (perfluoroisobutene)
and a chemical analog of the World War I nerve gas phosgene.
fact, the Environmental Working Group found 16 studies conducted
over the past 50 years showing that heated Teflon decomposes
to over a dozen types of toxic gases and particles. Many of
the studies were done by scientists at DuPont who were looking
into "polymer fume fever," a condition documented
among workers making Telfon products. Symptoms (which can be
confused with flu) include malaise, shortness of breath, headache,
chills, cough, sore throat, and fever. Pulmonary edema, a potentially
fatal condition, may also develop. Cases of polymer fume fever
from home kitchen exposures have been reported in medical journals,
leading some doctors to recommend stove ventilation whenever
using non-stick cookware.
states have filed a class-action suit claiming Teflon releases
PFOA under normal cooking use, and that DuPont failed to warn
consumers about the dangers. This and increasing public concern
have motivated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
to take action to restrict use of PFOA. Specifically, DuPont,
3M, Ciba, and other companies that use or manufacture it have
been advised to reduce their environmental releases by 95 percent
by 2010, and to eliminate sources of exposure by 2015. The companies
would still use it to manufacture non-stick and stain-resistant
coatings, however, using new technology they claim would ensure
that PFOA would not get into the environment or into products.
To protect industry from unnecessary economic loss, however,
the sale of current supplies of the controversial chemical and
products that contain it will be allowed for an additional five
continues to push for a reclassification of PFOA as a "likely"
carcinogen in humans rather than a "potential" one.
Health advocates are hoping an independent federal science advisory
board which has been convened on the topic will concur. PTFE
itself (Teflon) has no current toxic designations due to insufficient
data (and the assumption that, as a durable polymer, it is inert),
though gaseous particles of it are generated while heating cookware
and it is detectable in urine of workers.
though it may sound, many bird owners are already aware of the
dangers of Teflon -- at least to their birds, for whom the fumes
emitted by preheated non-stick cookware and other products have
long been known to be deadly. Teflon-fume poisoning is described
by veterinarian Darrel K. Styles as a "rapid and lethal
gaseous intoxication of all species of birds." There is
usually little or no warning before a pet bird will fall off
its perch and/or show signs of severe respiratory distress,
such as open-mouth or raspy breathing and erratic tail-bobbing
-- followed quickly by death. And these aren't just little canaries
or parakeets. One grieving bird owner wrote "Dear Abby"
in May 2005 about losing his much-loved Amazon parrot to toxic
fumes from a burned Teflon pan. (He wanted to warn others "that
Teflon fumes are deadly to birds," and "harmful to
small children.") A decade ago, nearly two dozen birds
died at Texas's San Antonio Zoo when they huddled for warmth
around heat lamps coated with Teflon, as some light bulbs are.
birds, toxic emissions from stove-top pans at temperatures far
below 680 degrees can be sufficient to cause severe pneumonia
and death. The risk is especially high for small birds, for
birds kept in or near the kitchen, and during the winter months,
when homes are tightly closed and air circulation is poor. Dr.
Styles recommends keeping pet birds out of the kitchen as a
safety measure. Some retailers advise purchasers about the delicate
respiratory systems of pet birds, and to be especially careful
when using non-stick cookware and aerosol sprays of non-stick
coatings, and other Teflon-coated appliances.
of the canaries carried into coal mines to detect dangerous
fumes by their deaths, pet birds' susceptibility to cookware
fumes may be a warning for us.
* * * * * *
alternatives to non-stick cookware are plentiful. Time-tested
classics such as stainless-steel pans with a layered core for
increased strength, cast iron, ceramic (e.g., Corning Ware),
and glass (e.g., Pyrex) are plentiful and versatile. Eve Felder,
associate dean of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of
America in Hyde Park, recommends this procedure for properly
"seasoning" new cast-iron cookware to reduce food
Heat in 400-degree
oven one-half hour and remove.
two tablespoons cooking oil to an eight-inch skillet (three
for a 10-inch), roll it around the pan, and rub it in with a
cloth; wipe out excess oil.
Sprinkle in enough
kosher salt just to cover the bottom and rub into the pan
(this helps seal the surface); discard salt.
After first few
uses, repeat steps 2 to 4 once more.
cast iron should be washed in very hot water with a small drop
of liquid soap, then rubbed dry to prevent rusting. To maintain
a smooth, water-repellent surface, it periodically may be necessary
to heat the pan on a burner and repeat the oiling and salting
procedures. This same procedure will repair a pot that has been
left soaking in water, which can rust and degrade the surface
(remove rust with a scouring pad before retreating the pan).
cookware doesn't have a curing procedure. To reduce food sticking
in stove-top skillets, wait to add food until the cooking oil's
surface has a wave of movement to it but is not smouldering.
Add food carefully to maintain an oil layer beneath it, and
do not attempt to move food until it loosens (as it cooks) and
can be easily flipped or moved. Note that some stainless-steel
products are Teflon-coated.
casting out that non-stick cookware seems like too much to ask,
reduce toxic gas emissions of coated pans by using low cooking
temperatures, never preheat pots without food or liquid, and
always use a stove vent.
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