How Toxic is Teflon? What you don’t know CAN Hurt You!

Toxicity in the Kitchen

Over the years, I have been in a lot of homes and seen a lot of kitchens in use. I have rarely been in a kitchen, other than my own, that did not have its share of Teflon coated nonstick pots and pans. Some kitchens I’ve seen are equipped with nothing but Teflon coated cookware.

Many home cooks prefer to cook with nonstick pots and pans, because it minimizes the use of cooking fats, as well as making cleanup so much easier. Nonstick cookware also makes kitchen tasks much less daunting for those who are not quite “comfortable” in the kitchen.

The advent of the Teflon coating was considered very liberating, whether one is a gourmet cook, or one cooks nothing more complicated than scrambled eggs; whether one cooks daily for a family of four or more, or only occasionally makes a foray into the kitchen to throw together a quick meal for one.

In recent decades, however, there has been a lot of concern over the toxicity of the Teflon nonstick coating. So, how toxic is Teflon? Let’s talk straight about Teflon coated cookware. . . .

What is Teflon?

Teflon is the trade name for a synthetic polymer, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). PTFE is a polymer that is hydrophobic, meaning it doesn’t stick to water or any wet substance, and has one of the lowest coefficients of friction against any solid.

In 1938, a DuPont chemist was experimenting with refrigerants and stumbled upon what was referred to as “one of the world’s slipperiest substances.” In 1944, the Teflon trademark was registered and Teflon was ultimately utilized as a nonstick cookware coating. DuPont later advertised Teflon as “a housewife’s best friend.”

Bad for Humans and the Environment

Up until 2013, the Teflon nonstick coating contained Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8. PFOA is a synthetic chemical, used in the process of making Teflon and similar chemicals, known as fluorotelomers. Although it is essentially burned off during the manufacturing process, it is still present in trace amounts in the final products, however it supposedly will not release fumes unless the pan is overheated.

Teflon coating on a pan may keep food from sticking to it, but nothing can keep PFOA from sticking to us and to our environment. PFOA is present worldwide at very low levels. It has shown up in dolphins off the Florida coast and polar bears in the Arctic; it is present, according to a range of studies, in the bloodstream of almost every American—even in newborns. PTFE residuals, known as perfluorocarbons (PFC’s) were found in breast milk from all forty-five nursing mothers tested in one particular study.

Higher blood levels of PFOA have been found in community residents where local water supplies have been contaminated by PFOA. People exposed to PFOA in the workplace can have levels many times higher. High levels of exposure to PFOA have been associated with the following health problems:

  • kidney and testicular cancer
  • ulcerative colitis
  • thyroid disease
  • liver damage
  • cholesterol concerns
  • changes in blood pressure during pregnancy
  • health problems with fetuses, babies and children

Due to its resistance to typical environmental degradation processes, PFOA will linger in the environment well beyond our lifetime, leaving a legacy for at least twenty-five generations. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit watchdog organization, declared PFOA and its close chemical relatives to be “the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man.” The toxicity will likely remain in the environment forever.

A Teflon-coated pan heats up to about 750ºF in approximately 5 minutes. Thermal degradation of PTFE triggers a litany of toxic compounds, including highly corrosive and lethal gases, and PFIB, a chemical warfare agent that is 10 times more lethal than phosgene (a chemical warfare agent used in WWI and WWII). These compounds also persist in the environment. Furthermore, scratched Teflon pans will ultimately completely exfoliate. The coating will end up in your food and then in you. No matter how it finds its way into our bodies, once there, it quietly accumulates in our tissues, for a lifetime.

PTFE toxicity causes polymer fume fever in humans. This condition is temporary and intense, but not serious, and it mimics the flu. Only a few cases have been reported of people going to the hospital and it is unlikely doctors would recognize the origin of the illness as coming from overheated Teflon. Polymer fume fever is only caused from exposure to PTFE breakdown products. 

Deadly for Birds

PTFE is most notorious for its toxicity to birds. This has been referred to as “Teflon toxicosis” where the lungs of exposed birds hemorrhage, filling up with fluid and leading to suffocation. There are some tragic stories of bird deaths related to Teflon (PTFE) exposure that can be found here, on the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website, in a 2003 article.

Why Did it Take So Long to Discover the Dangers?

DuPont is the original inventor and manufacturer of Teflon-coated products. They have been aware of the toxic health effects of exposure to heated Teflon for well over 50 years. When their workers were becoming ill on the job, the company conducted a study on humans with Teflon-laced cigarettes. Nine out of the ten participants developed polymer fume fever.

On July 8, 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency revealed the results of a year-long investigation into DuPont’s failure to disclose to the agency internal company studies showing pollution of human fetal cord blood and local tap water with C8 or PFOA. Acting on a petition filed by the Environmental Working Group, the Agency found that DuPont engaged in unlawful behavior on three separate counts of hiding critical study results in company file cabinets for up to 20 years.

At that time, a loophole ridden system had gaping holes in the public health safety net for toxic chemicals. These loopholes made it possible for chemical companies to decide for themselves what, if any, safety tests to perform, and when, if ever, to tell public health and environmental officials about the results.

Knowledge is Power

That’s it in a nutshell, without going very deep into all of the details, but it’s more than enough for me.

How about you? Are you using Teflon coated pots and pans that were manufactured prior to 2013? Or do you perhaps have a few of them hiding in the back of your cupboard? Are you using Teflon coated cookware that was manufactured since 2013, but not always keeping the heat at the level suggested by the manufacturer? Are you ready to say goodbye to toxic Teflon and replace it with nontoxic nonstick cookware?

So what is the healthiest non stick cookware and bakeware available? What are the best products? I will begin to address that in my next post.

To your healthy kitchen!

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