Keep Your Cool When Using Teflon

By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

It may be time for an update on what might be called the Teflon Terror Syndrome -- the fear of using nonstick cookware.

First, a few facts. Most nonstick coatings are made of Teflon, a patented product of DuPont Co. DuPont employs a chemical called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, or C8) at some stage in the process of manufacturing Teflon. PFOA has long been known to cause reproductive defects and cancer in animals. The Environmental Protection Agency concluded last month that PFOA and its close chemical relatives (often referred to generically as PFOA) "present an unreasonable risk to human health" because it has become widespread in the environment. Hence, the suspicion that nonstick cookware contains PFOA and can impart it to our foods.

It doesn't, and it can't. The EPA's rightful concern is with PFOA in the environment, not in our cookware.

Putting environmental issues aside for now, let's cut to the kitchen. While PFOA is

indeed used in the Teflon manufacturing process, it is not present in the finished product. At most, traces might remain, but even those traces are locked in, because Teflon is immune to attack by any known chemical, including that battery-acid tomato sauce we have all cooked up at one time or another.

Like virtually all substances, however, Teflon will eventually succumb to heat. When Teflon becomes hot enough, its big (polymer) molecules break down into smaller (telomer) molecules and larger particles, at the same time giving off a multitude of gaseous fluorine compounds, many of which are known to be toxic or carcinogenic or both.

What, then, are the options for the concerned home cook? Throw away the nonstick pans? If all of the nonstick cookware in the United States were consigned to a landfill, an even more serious environmental problem could be created. On the other hand, keeping nonstick pans but refraining from heating them is clearly untenable. The answer? Don't let them get too hot.

What is "too hot"? According to published research cited by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Washington, fine particulates are released from Teflon pans when heated to more than about 550 degrees. These particulates have been tied to the deaths of several species of birds, whose respiratory systems are hypersensitive. (That's why canaries are used as warnings of mine gases.) Above about 680 degrees, gases that are toxic to humans and most likely carcinogenic are emitted -- but note: no PFOA has been detected. Below those temperatures, nonstick cookware is entirely safe. There is no emission of particulates or "off-gassing" of chemicals, whether toxic or benign.

Here, then, are some simple rules for continuing to enjoy the benefits of nonstick cookware in complete safety:

ยท Never leave an empty nonstick pan unattended on a burner. (An empty pan gets hotter than a pan with something in it, even oil, because the oil absorbs and dissipates heat from the pan's surface. Empty, a frying pan can reach 750 to 800 degrees after several minutes on a high burner.)

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