When Teflon was introduced, it was thought to revolutionize cooking--a nonstick surface. Fifty years later, it is the subject of much debate among health researchers and environmental activists.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), an ingredient used to make polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)--the chemical in Teflon--as well as most other nonstick coatings is the controversial component. If you're buying any type of non-stick cookware, you can assume PFOA was used unless a pan's label specifically says it's made with alternative green coatings. For more information on the effectiveness of these alternatives, visit our full report on skillets and cookware.
PTFE was picked for coating pans because it is almost completely inert. Almost. Back in 2003 it was revealed that PTFE gives off toxic fumes when heated over 500 degrees Fahrenheit, according to How Stuff Works. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) cited cases of PTFE fumes killing pet birds and causing flu-like symptoms in humans; this illness is known as polymer fume fever.
In addition to the risk of polymer fume fever, there are also concerns over the safety of PFOA in general. According to the EPA, PFOA is ubiquitous in most Americans' blood and in the environment. Plus the substance, which has been shown to cause cancer in lab animals, remains in the human body for a very long time (some sources say 10 years). Mothers working at a Teflon plant in the 1980s also claimed that especially high PFOA exposure caused birth defects.
As such, the EPA has deemed PFOA as "likely to be carcinogenic" and, in 2006, worked with eight major companies (including Teflon's maker, DuPont) to draft a plan to reduce PFOA-use by 2010 and eliminate it by 2015. However, despite these reports the EPA maintains that PTFE in nonstick cookware does not pose a risk to consumers and the American Cancer Society does not suspect Teflon to cause cancer.
Should You Be Worried?
The short answer is "maybe." Consumer Reports has performed real-world tests on nonstick cookware and found no significant amount of PFOA in the air after cooking. "The highest level was around 100 times lower than published animal studies suggest are levels of concern for ongoing exposure," they say. As nonstick pans age, the amount of PFOA released is even lower.
And it's easy to understand why Consumer Reports' results are so low. The temperature at which PTFE releases toxic fumes, 500 degrees Fahrenheit, is a much hotter temperature than most of us regularly cook. In fact, Treehugger.com points out that at temperatures that high, grease fires and the smoke from denatured cooking oil would be a much greater threat to your health than PFOA.
Still, the EWG presents a valid argument in its tests of pre-heated pan temperatures. An empty generic nonstick pan over high heat can reach almost 700 degrees Fahrenheit in as little as 3 minutes and Teflon pans took 5 minutes. If you decide to continue using non-stick cookware, you'll want to take some precautions: Pre-heat empty skillets over low-to-medium heat; do so for a couple of minutes; and avoid leaving the pan empty over the flame to prevent the release of fumes. Most experts don't recommend cooking on chipped nonstick.
As we move towards the 2015 PFOA-elimination deadline and nonstick coatings continue to improve (and become even tougher), the likelihood of ingesting PFOA from nonstick coating may grow smaller.