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What are the Risks of Using Teflon® Pans?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon337439 — On Jun 05, 2013

Had a migraine hangover one day (day after migraine) In my improving "fog" I was preparing dinner. While frying up mushrooms, I also put on a nonstick pot to steam some green beans. I have no sense of smell but heard the pot pinging after I turned off the heat - figured it must have boiled dry just as I finished. When I opened the pot and removed the steamer not only were the beans an off color but the lining of my pot had bubbled up! I had forgotten in my fogginess to add water!

The pot, beans and steamer are now in the trash but I have been ill the last one and a half days after - nauseated, chills, achy and headache. Apparently there is something called teflon flu that fits this description! I know - stupid of me - but scary!!

By anon300006 — On Oct 27, 2012

I breathed some fumes in when my husband accidentally let a pan burn dry. What's annoying is how there are no answers. How far do the fumes travel? How long do they stay in the air? What can someone exposed do to reduce their exposure?

"Fumes" will diffuse into the surrounding air like any other gas. They will stay in the air until they are vented from the house. Reduce your exposure by getting away from air contaminated with these fumes or do not make them in the first place. Pretty self explanatory.

By anon290342 — On Sep 09, 2012

Why does our society create these products without testing them first? I'll tell you why: it's all about money! We deserve better. They should be taken off the market now. Not by 2015.

I breathed some fumes in when my husband accidentally let a pan burn dry. What's annoying is how there are no answers. How far do the fumes travel? How long do they stay in the air? What can someone exposed do to reduce their exposure?

By anon113687 — On Sep 25, 2010

This substance should be taken off the market. In WV, children are born deformed and without body openings. On some boxes, it says do not cook with these utensils if a bird is in the room! What about people? Birds have been used in coal mines to detect poisonous air. Coal Miner's daughter and granddaughter.

By anon53348 — On Nov 20, 2009

Once a teflon pan is over-heated or burned, does it remain toxic forever, or does it become safe again when cool?

By HeidiO — On May 11, 2008

Thanks, i am actually having to research this for a school assignment so anything you can say is useful =]

By anon12634 — On May 11, 2008

Teflon is not recommended for the dishwasher, as it erodes the nonstick surface. The concern is that food will start to stick. Outgassing does not occur until the pan reaches 396 degrees. I doubt your dishwasher becomes that hot, even in the drying cycle. But it should probably be avoided anyway.

By HeidiO — On May 07, 2008

What if a Teflon pan were to go into a dishwasher? Does anyone know how this could harm a person either by using it after it has been washed in there, could that make it worse? Or would it have any other effect on other items in the dishwasher?

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