To Your Health

Should I ditch my Teflon cookware?

Q. Should I ditch my Teflon cookware? I've been hearing a lot of bad things about it lately.

A. Recently the Environmental Protection Agency stated that the starting material used to make Teflon (called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA) has the potential to cause human cancer, based on "suggestive evidence" from animal studies. This is not very strong language, and though it may be bad news for the workers involved in the manufacturing of Teflon products, it does not necessarily mean that the users of Teflon cookware are in danger. Teflon is a "polymer," a chain of molecules of PFOA like popcorn on a string, and very stable once it is made.

The EPA is taking a very cautious approach to a widespread concern about the safety of Teflon. An EPA spokesperson warned, "It's not a good thing to jump to unwarranted conclusions." The EPA scientific advisory board has recommended further animal testing and suggests that the chemical may also have other ill effects that need to be studied.

The main problem seems to be that when Teflon is heated to temperatures higher than about 450 degrees (twice the temperature of boiling water) it produces toxic particles and fumes that can deposit in the lungs. At higher temperatures, 680 degrees, other worrisome substances are given off, but many of them are poorly investigated. These temperatures can be reached if a pan is left sitting on a normal kitchen stove burner set on "high" for as little as five minutes. The "take-home" lesson is to use Teflon only to cook at lower temperatures.

Because these particles and fumes find their way to the fatty portions of our bodies, structures such as mitochondria (the critical energy generators inside each cell of our body) tend to be most affected. Mitochondria tend to swell and lose their ability to generate energy in the presence of these fumes.

DuPont, the maker of Teflon, was at one time concerned that cigarette smokers were at higher risk of harm from Teflon than nonsmokers. Scientists speculated that small particles of Teflon on a smoker's fingers would decompose in a burning cigarette and produce toxins. About 0.4 milligrams of Teflon, an amount that could fit on the head of a pin, produced flu-like symptoms in some unofficial experiments at DuPont. Despite these findings, neither DuPont nor the government has studied the safety of smokers using Teflon cookware at home.

Birds seem to be especially susceptible to poisoning from the gases produced by hot Teflon. There are stories of pet birds dying after kitchen fires in which Teflon was present. It should be stressed that there have been no reported deaths of birds when Teflon cookware has been used at temperatures under 450 degrees.

Teflon has plenty of valuable uses other than as a nonstick coating for cookware. Being very slippery, it is useful in bearings and gears, plus it is a good insulator for electrical cables. Such industrial applications do not normally involve the high temperatures that are found in cooking utensils, and thus represent a safer use of Teflon. In addition to Teflon, PFOA is used to create stain-resistant surfaces for carpets and fabrics. Although there is concern, as yet there is no conclusive proof that these compounds harm humans when used as intended.

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