A century ago, coal miners began using canaries to warn them of deadly gases in a mine: the canary went first, if it died, the miners didn’t enter. Should we be following their lead?
It’s been known for decades that the chemicals released when you cook with Teflon-coated, or non-stick, cookware at high heats will kill your pet bird, so why is non-stick still so popular? It’s the point of debate between DuPont, the maker of Teflon, and the Environmental Working Group, an independent US non-profit consumer group.
Both sides agree that by pre-heating a nonstick pan on medium to high heat, the surface will eventually break apart and emit a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA (PFOA has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals and is in the blood of 95 percent of Americans.)
PFOA is the chemical that causes “Teflon Toxicosis”, a leading cause of pet bird death, and can cause “Teflon Flu” or “polymer fume fever” in humans, a reversible illness of flu-like symptoms. Both sides acknowledge the existence of the “Teflon flu”, the point of controversy is the temperature at which the PFOA fumes are released and whether we reach these conditions under normal cooking conditions. Even the mainstream media seems confused by the statistics:
“The PFOA is unlikely to seep into food or escape into the air in kitchens — unless, of course, an empty nonstick pan were abandoned on a hot burner, [to reach] 600 degrees or so (a temperature rarely reached in cooking)…”– Washington Post editorial, 2/1/06.
“When Teflon cookware gets overheated, starting around 500 degrees.”–ABC News.
degrees, the mix of chemicals that is given off by the pans can make people sick…”-
“DuPont says that off-gassing from nonstick pans does not occur until the pans are heated to over 400 degrees…”- San Francisco Chronicle.
According to the Environmental Working Group, DuPont’s own studies show that:
“the Teflon offgases toxic particulates at 446°F and at 680°F Teflon pans release at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, two global pollutants, and MFA, a chemical lethal to humans at low doses.
At temperatures that DuPont scientists claim are reached on stovetop drip pans (1000°F), non-stick coatings break down to a chemical warfare agent known as PFIB, and a chemical analog of the WWII nerve gas phosgene.”- EWG, “Canaries in the Kitchen”.
Just how easy is it to reach these temperatures in your kitchen? To try to clear up some of the controversy, The Environmental Working Group (EWG) performed tests on non-stick cookware.
They found that a Teflon pan preheated on a conventional, electric stovetop burner reached 721°F “in just five minutes.” Using this information and DuPont’s own studies showing that of off-gassing beginning at 446°F, the EWG estimates within two minutes of pre-heating, Teflon cookware “turns toxic through the common act of preheating a pan, on a burner set on high.”
The EWG claims that DuPont has known about the dangers for 50 years, but continues to deny any problem. While DuPont doesn’t publish warnings on the cookware packaging, on their website they state a maximum recommended temperature for Teflon cookware of 500°F stating that “significant decomposition of the coating will occur only when temperatures exceed about 660°F (349°C)”.
They also claim these “decomposition temperatures” are unlikely to occur without burning food to an “inedible state,” but when ABC’s investigative television show 20/20 did their own demonstration of non-stick cookware, they found that “a piece of bacon was just getting crisp when the Teflon pan went beyond the initial warning point of 500 degrees.” When they asked Dupont’s vice president of research and development, Uma Chowdhry, about their experiment results, she responded:
“I’ve never cooked bacon. I can’t comment.” – abcnews.com.
The EWG claims in their report “Canaries in the Kitchen”:
“DuPont has never studied the incidence of the fever among users of the billions of non-stick pots and pans sold around the world. Neither has the company studied the long-term effects from the sickness, or the extent to which Teflon exposures lead to human illnesses believed erroneously to be the common flu.” – EWG, “Canaries in the Kitchen”
When the 20/20 team asked DuPont’s Chowdhry to respond to the EWG study regarding “Teflon Flu.”
“You get some fumes, yes, and you get a flu-like symptom, which is reversible.” (again, abcnews.com).
In 2006, DuPont and seven other companies agreed to a voluntary pact (crafted by the the Environmental Protection Agency) to virtually eliminate trace amounts of PFOA in consumer products by 2015.
It is a step toward safer kitchens of the future, but perhaps it is a little too late; this year, DuPont was one of 36 companies worldwide to lose their place on the the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI).