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When Teflon® pans become sufficiently heated, the nonstick coating begins to decompose, releasing one or more of 15 different toxins. This is not only true of Teflon® brand pans, but of all brands of nonstick cookware. Peer review studies reported by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggest outgassing begins at just 396°F (202.2°C).
As Teflon® pans become hotter, the chemicals released become more toxic. This outgassing is sufficiently toxic to kill pet birds and is responsible for “polymer fume flu” in humans, sometimes called "Teflon® flu." Among the symptoms of Teflon® flu are headache, nausea, fever, backache and malaise. Symptoms subside within a few days, but there may be even greater risks to using Teflon® cookware.
A nonstick pan left empty to preheat can easily reach 700°F (371°C) within a few minutes. At 680°F (360°C), Teflon® pans begin releasing tiny particles of perflurooctanoic acid (PFOA) or C-8. PFOA is used in the manufacture of these pans and other non-stick cookware.
PFOA does not break down in the body or in the environment, and has led to cancer and birth defects in lab animals. It may also be linked to two documented cases of human birth defects seen in DuPont plant workers who handled chemicals used in the production of Teflon® pans. In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared PFOA a likely carcinogen. DuPont has agreed to phase out PFOA by the year 2015. While cooking a steak doesn’t require temperatures higher than 500°F (260°C), should Teflon® cookware be forgotten on the stove in the face of a distraction or emergency elsewhere in the house, high temperatures could release even more noxious chemicals known to be harmful to humans, animals and the environment.
Studies indicate 95% of all Americans, including children, have small but detectable amounts of PFOA in the bloodstream. PFOA exposure goes beyond Teflon® pans to non-stick food packaging, stain repellents, and Scotch-guard type products. All of these use chemicals that break down into PFOA. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates it would take 4.4 years for the present levels of PFOA to be flushed from the body without further exposure. However, consumers are constantly exposed to products with these chemicals.
Studies regarding the safety of Teflon® and other non-stick cookware continues. The EPA deems PFOA products safe for use pending more studies. DuPont admits Teflon® cookware can release toxic PFOA fumes, but insists this only occurs if the pans are overheated, which it characterizes as abusive use of the cookware. DuPont’s stance is that by the time the pans release toxic PFOA fumes, food would already be burnt and inedible.
If you choose to use Teflon® pans or other nonstick cookware, cook with low-to-medium heat and do not preheat the pans. Teflon® pans are not recommended if you keep pet birds. An alternate to Teflon® pans is cookware with baked enamel or porcelain interiors, which do not stick and cook food wonderfully. Less expensive alternatives include stainless steel, iron, or aluminum skillets that require cooking oil to keep food from sticking.