Published on June 13th, 2012 | by Lynn Fang14
How Toxic is Teflon?
If you’ve got some old pans around the house, you might have wondered, how toxic is Teflon? In this post we’ll break it down for you, and help you find safer cooking alternatives.
Let’s take a closer look at what Teflon is all about and learn exactly how toxic is Teflon for humans and for our environment.
Teflon is great for keeping burnt food off your pots and pans while saving you time and energy spent on scrubbing or seasoning. But is this convenience truly convenient, or is it an additional health hazard in your home? What is Teflon?
Teflon is the trade name for a synthetic polymer, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). If you’re an organic chemistry pro, maybe you can visualize the molecular structure just by reading the name. If you’re like the rest of us, PTFE is a polymer that is hydrophobic, meaning it doesn’t stick to water or water-containing substances (anything that’s wet). It also has one of the lowest coefficients of friction against any solid, giving it the necessary qualities for great non-stick cookware.
Studies show that in about 5 minutes, a Teflon-coated pan heats up to around 750ºF. According to the Environmental Working Group, thermal degradation of PTFE leads to 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 persist in the environment and are not known to break down further.
How Toxic is Teflon?
Once scratched, teflon pans begin an inevitable march toward complete exfoliation. That is, all that teflon is going to end up in your food, and then inside your body.
According to the Environmental Working Group, teflon and PFOA (which is the chemical used to make teflon) are some of the most persistent chemicals in the world. Their toxic legacy will outlive every one of us, and the next 25 generations of our offspring. Ironically, it may shorten each generation’s lifespan, as well. PFOA’s effects include liver damage, immune dysfunction, thyroid dysfunction, and a decreased ability to fight infection.
Teflon Kills 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. Here are some shocking stories of bird deaths related to Teflon (PTFE) exposure (all references can be found in the EWG article node):
- Four stove top burners, underlined with Teflon-coated drip pans, were preheated in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner; 14 birds died within 15 minutes  .
- Nonstick cookie sheet was placed under oven broiler to catch the drippings; 107 chicks died 
- Water burned off a hot pan; more than 55 birds died .
- Electric skillet at 300°F and space heater were used simultaneously; pet bird died .
- Toaster oven with a non-stick coating was used to prepare food at a normal temperature; bird survived but suffered respiratory distress .
- Water being heated for hot cocoa boiled off completely; pet bird died .
- Grill plate on gas stove used to prepare food at normal temperatures; two birds died on two separate occasions .
Teflon Toxicity in Humans
In humans, Teflon toxicity causes polymer fume fever, a temporary, intense, though not very serious influenza-like syndrome. Only a few cases have been reported of people going to the hospital from overheated Teflon. Since the fever mimics the flu, it is likely doctors would not realize the origin of the illness coming from overheated Teflon. Polymer fume fever is only caused from exposure to PTFE breakdown products. Further alarm comes as PTFE residuals, known as perfluorocarbons (PFC’s) were found in breast milk from all 45 nursing mothers tested in this study.
DuPont, the original inventor and manufacturer of Teflon-coated products have known for over 50 years the toxic health effects of exposure to heated Teflon. When their workers were becoming ill on the job, DuPont conducted a study on humans with Teflon-laced cigarettes. Nine out of the ten participants developed polymer fume fever. DuPont has exhibited questionable behavior including sending many letters to bird owners who have publicly spoken or blogged about the connection of Teflon to their bird deaths. The company claims it is a trademarked name, so perhaps the PTFE coating was from another company.
Birds dying is enough for me to know Teflon is not safe in my food. Polymer fume fever and all the breakdown products just make the whole Teflon story even worse.
Safe Alternatives for Healthy Cooking
For safer, more reliable cooking alternatives to Teflon, consider these time-tested methods:
Stainless steel is a popular choice for healthy cookware because it is one of the most inert metals, though it has been reported to leach a small amount of chromium and nickel, which may be problematic for those with a sensitivity or allergy to chromium or nickel.
All-Clad cookware makes a sandwich of copper and aluminum layers in between stainless steel, allowing for greater and more even heat conductivity through copper and aluminum, while keeping your feed free of copper or aluminum toxicity. Check out this guide to stainless steel cookware.
Cast iron pans work just as well as non-stick pots and pans when seasoned properly. The more oil residue built up on the pans, the greater non-stick effect is produced. Cast iron pots and pans have been used for centuries and are popular with campers. They take some special maintenance, but they are inexpensive and add iron to your diet. If you have an iron deficiency, this is a really great benefit. Learn how to cook with cast iron pans and why it’s so awesome!
Eco-Friendly Non-Stick Pans
Over the years I’ve tried a few eco-friendly non-stick pans like Green Pan and Cuisinart’s eco-options, but I’ve not been super impressed with either. Both work great initially, but tend to lose their non-stick after about a year. Invest in the cast iron and save the cash!
Photo credits: JPC24M via Foter.com / CC BY-SA; cast iron pan image from Shutterstock