In 1938, an accidental discovery was made that would change the world forever. A 28 year old scientist named Roy Plunkett from Ohio, while developing a new refrigerant, became puzzled when one of his pressure bottles stopped flowing, but the weight indicated it wasn’t empty. After confirming that there was no gas inside, he and a lab technician cut the bottle open out of curiosity and discovered a peculiar white powder.

This white powder was found to have incredible properties: heat tolerant, corrosion resistant, incredibly low surface friction, hydrophobic, and flexible. The company he worked for wasted no time in patenting and developing this white powder into one of the most prolific plastics in the world. By 1948, the DuPont Company was manufacturing 900 tonnes of Teflon.

It wasn’t until 1961 when the son of an Italian immigrant named Marion Trizzolo developed the world’s first non-stick cooking pan and Teflon became a household staple. Today, the large majority of cooking pans are coated in some type of non-stick material of the Teflon variety.

While the manufacturers of these materials tout the longevity of their use and the FDA stamp of approval as evidence of their safety, but a body of evidence to the contrary has been growing since the 1950s that suggest that Teflon may pose a health and safety risk not only to the environment at large, but to the health and longevity of those that use them.

Much of this evidence was used in 2003 when the Environmental Working Group, a consumer advocate, research center, and watchdog organization that focuses on toxins and health hazards in consumer goods and produce, filed a petition with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to demand that they require manufacturers who use non-stick products to place a warning label to alert consumers to the health risks of PTFE coatings (Teflon).

warningIn this petition, they list dozens of research studies, including one’s conducted by DuPont, that show that at temperatures as low as 392 F PTFE releases toxic gases that can kill small animals, especially birds. Like canaries in the coal mines, these instances of avian mortality are clear indications of potential health risks to humans.

In May 1998, poultry researchers at the University of Missouri recorded 52 percent mortality in 2400 chicks within three days of the birds being placed into floor pens with new PTFE-coated heat lamp bulbs. After ruling out bacterial infections like E. Coli and Salmonella, or toxic gases such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, the scientists finally linked the chick deaths to offgas products from the PTFE-coated bulbs. All of the chicks examined after death had lung lesions and moderate to severe pulmonary edema consistent with "PTFE toxicosis."  The temperature of the lamps was 396 F, roughly corresponding to medium-high heat on a stovetop.

If it were only birds that became ill, one could argue that humans aren’t affected by these vapors, but DuPont itself has observed a phenomenon called “polymer fume fever” in individuals who are exposed to PTFE off gas. DuPont lists the classic symptoms as: tightness of chest, malaise, shortness of breath, headache, cough, fever, chills, temperature of 100-104, and sore throat. In fact, the condition so closely resembles the flu that many widely believe that many cases of the flu may actually be polymer fume fever since many more people tend to cook at home and indoors for family and friends during the holiday winter season when the majority of flu-like conditions appear.

gasFifteen toxic PTFE off gas products are released when heated, including two carcinogens, two chemical warfare agents, and a chemical analogue of a World War II nerve gas agent called phosgene, at high, but routinely achieved, cooking temperatures. While non-stick cookware is easier to clean, and cooking an omelet over easy requires less dexterity, these are not fair trade-offs when your health is on the other side of the scale.

While the manufacturers claim that Teflon and PTFE degradation only occur at very high temperatures, anyone who has ever owned a non-stick pan knows that no matter how well you take care of it, i.e. low heat, no dishwasher, no dry cooking, no pre-heating, etc. Eventually the coating wears off. Where does the coating go? Does it just vanish into thin air like the other sock in the dryer? Of course not. It degrades due to the chemistry that occurs when heat is applied. Heat is applied when you are cooking, and generally when you are cooking there is food on the coating. Of course the coating is going to comingle with the food, a little bit at a time.

In 1991, a study (Seidel et al.) documented that when heat is applied to PFTE, gas and ultra-fine particles are released. These particles are highly toxic. Rats exposed to PTFE heated at 425 C died within 4 hours. At 560 C, they died within 30 minutes. The rats died from lung damage which was apparently caused only by the ultra-fine particles in the range of .02-.15 nanometers.

Bottom line: don’t cook with it.  

There are several natural and safe alternatives to non-stick PTFE pans:

Stainless and Carbon Steel:

steelMany steel pans are coated in Teflon as well but many aren’t. The trick to cooking with these types of pans is to use a proper amount of cooking oil and cooking on low to medium heat. Too little oil and too high of a temperature and the food can stick. Do not use titanium or aluminum cookware as both of these metals are toxic.

Cast Iron:

ironCast Iron pans, contrary to popular belief can actually develop their own non-stick surface over time, but instead of a petroleum derived toxin like PFTE, the non-stick properties come from the cooking oils that become imbued into the metal over time. There is a particular maintenance technique that is not difficult or complicated to follow that maintains and improves the non-stick properties of the old reliable cast iron skillet. Cons: extremely heavy.

Ceramic and Stoneware:

Relatively new to the modern cooking scene, though forms of ceramic cookware date back thousands of years, the variety being manufactured today and touted as non-stick are somewhat different. While there may be ceramic and stoneware products that are safe and are made with all-natural and non-toxic ingredients, some ceramics and stoneware are coated in a glaze that contains toxic heavy metals, and depending on the origin of the clay and stone, there can be naturally occurring toxic elements. The recommendation is that the jury may still be out on this particular option so do your research before you buy.