Humans can be quite clever, albeit oftentimes to our detriment. Such may be the case with the widespread use of polymer polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), better known to most people by its brand name, Teflon. PTFE was discovered accidentally by chemist Roy J. Plunkett (1910-1994) of DuPont, in 1938, while trying to create a new CFC refrigerant. It turned out that the waxy white substance has the lowest coefficient of friction of any known solid, and thus DuPont began exploring its commercial possibilities as a coating. DuPont patented it in 1941, registered the Teflon trademark in 1944, and began selling it in 1946. By 1950, DuPont was annually producing over one million tons of PTFE.
Much of the Teflon that has been created since its introduction, has ended up being used for nonstick pans and other cookware, which regularly come into contact at high temperatures with foods that we eat. Consequently, we must ask ourselves, just exactly how safe is Teflon? What happens to the fragments of Teflon — visible or otherwise — that inevitably chip off when cooking utensils and other items strike the surfaces of Teflon-coated pans? Many people assume that the practically friction-free material must pass harmlessly right through their bodies.
Initially, consumers were assured that Teflon is chemically inert and non-toxic, and therefore completely safe. But the tough questions should have been asked decades ago, given that Teflon is not chemically bonded to any cookware surface (in fact, it cannot chemically bond to anything). To get Teflon to stick, the target surface is roughened via sandblasting, covered with a primer, and then covered with Teflon, which gets stuck in microscopic interstices. Wouldn't repeated use at high temperatures cause portions of that Teflon to be continually released, into the food, and in turn into us?
That turns out to be the case. It was later discovered that, at temperatures above 500°F (260°C), Teflon begins to decompose. The resultant gases are known to produce hallucinations and flu-like symptoms for humans, and death for indoor birds. The number of people possibly affected by Teflon, must be enormous, given that over 70% of the cookware purchased in the United States has a nonstick coating.
PTFE is not the only potentially hazardous chemical involved in the manufacture of Teflon. For instance, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a.k.a. C-8, is used to make Teflon, although it is not a component of Teflon. However, uncured cookware can have traces of PFOA. In February 2006, a group of independent scientific advisers to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) voted unanimously that the EPA should classify PFOA as a likely carcinogen. DuPont responded by taking out full-page ads in major U.S. publications, assuring the public that Teflon is safe. Research has shown that PFOA is now found in the blood of most Americans. In fact, one study indicated that 96 percent of the children tested in 23 U.S. states, had traces of PFOA.
This is not the first time that PFOA has been in the news. In May 2005, a federal grand jury subpoenaed DuPont for documents, as requested by the U.S. Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section. Only a month prior, DuPont had agreed to a settlement with the EPA, admitting that it neglected to report health safety information about PFOA for 20 years. In Teflon's defense, it should be noted that the major sources of PFOA are chemicals for stain- and water-resistance in clothing, carpets, and take-out food boxes. (More good reasons to prepare your own food, wearing clothing made of natural fibers.)
Yet even after any residual PFOA has disappeared from nonstick cookware, the Teflon poses a danger to humans and animals — roughly proportional to the cooking temperatures. The pet birds that have died from Teflon are reminiscent of the canaries formerly used in coal mines to warn miners of lethal gases, which would kill the canary first. Before that happens to you or your household members, consider replacing any Teflon-coated cookware with healthier alternatives, such as stainless steel, cast iron, silicon, or glass.