TEFLON – IS IT SAFE?
By Allan Maynard March 4, 2021
This was part of my breakfast a few mornings ago. And yes – it’s in a Teflon frying pan. It’s so easy – a tiny (well maybe not too tiny) dollop of butter, crack the egg in, flip after partial frying and out slides the perfect over medium fried egg. But – is Teflon safe? Because I am an environmental chemist, I must have determined that Teflon is safe. However, it is not that simple.
WHAT IS TEFLON? – OK – (eye roll) – a short chemistry lesson. Carbon is an amazing element. Because of the great variety of ways that the carbon atom can bond with itself and other elements, there are more than nine million known organic compounds including hydrocarbon fuels, proteins, fats, sugars, cellulose, pesticides, dyes and more. Some carbon compounds are simple. Carbon with four hydrogens (CH4) is methane (natural gas). Carbon with one other carbon, six hydrogens and one oxygen forms ethyl alcohol (C2H6O).
Many organic molecules are not overly stable. But when carbon combines with chlorine atoms for example, the resulting molecules can be very stable with some highly detrimental to the environment. One notorious example, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane or C14H9Cl5) was developed as the first of the modern synthetic insecticides in the 1940s.
When carbon binds with fluorine atoms many of the resulting compounds are even more stable with most now called “forever chemicals”. Hundreds of everyday products are made with fluorinated chemicals called PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). These compounds can build up in our bodies and never break down in the environment. Very small doses of PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases. Teflon is a PFAS.
And that is the end of the chemistry lesson with a lot of big names to remember (or not).
WHY IS TEFLON CONTROVERSIAL YET SO WIDELY USED? – This is where the Teflon story begins. It is a type of PFAS – more specifically by its chemical name – polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). It was discovered by DuPont in 1938, branded under the name Teflon, and initially manufactured by a spin-off company called Chemours. Because of its stability, it doesn’t react with other chemicals and can provide an almost frictionless surface. Thus – it is widely used as a coating in cooking pots and pans, but is also used in many other products, such as fabric protectors.
A 1950s ad for Teflon pans.
It’s the process of manufacturing Teflon that has been the main source of controversy. Another man-made chemical is used as a precursor. That chemical is called Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8. It is burned off during the process of making Teflon itself and is thus likely not present in significant amounts in the final products. However, PFOA (or C8) has created severe environmental damage in locations near plants manufacturing Teflon.
Starting in 1998, multiple lawsuits were filed in US courts against DuPont in relation to C8 used to produce Teflon. Local farmers, residents and company workers claimed to have suffered illnesses and livestock mortalities linked to pollution from DuPont’s Parkersburg plant in West Virginia. In one class action lawsuit settled in 2005, DuPont agreed to provide up to 235 million dollars for medical monitoring of over 70,000 people. These monitoring studies found that residents who drank water from wells near the plant, had a median level of 38 parts per billion of C8 (or PFOA) in their blood — 7.6 times more than the average American. In 2012, a science panel concluded (from these studies) a “probable link” existed between C8 and six diseases: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol. Since then, there have been numerous individual lawsuits from victims of PFOA-related diseases. In February 2017, DuPont settled over 3,550 lawsuits for 671 million dollars.
Of interest – the legal case against Dupont is accurately covered in the drama “Dark Waters’ starring Mark Ruffalo playing the role of Robert Billott, the Cincinnati, Ohio attorney that was the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. Here’s a review
Rather than having a major battle in developing regulations for the use of these chemicals, the US – EPA and the 8 US manufacturers who used C8 agreed, in 2006, to a “stewardship program.” The goal was for the companies to eliminate C8 from emissions and product contents by the end of 2015. Now, C8 and some closely related chemicals are no longer used in the US. However, they are still used in a number of other countries and could potentially reach consumers in certain types of products.
SO NOW THE QUESTION – IS IT SAFE TO FRY AN EGG IN A TELFON PAN? – It would seem that the use of Teflon pans, especially new ones is safe. This is a quote from the American Cancer Institute. “Other than the possible risk of flu-like symptoms from breathing in fumes from an overheated Teflon-coated pan, there are no proven risks to humans from using cookware coated with Teflon (or other non-stick surfaces). While PFOA was used in the past in the US in making Teflon, it is not present (or is present in extremely small amounts) in Teflon-coated products”.
Notice the caveats in this statement — ‘there are no proven risks.’ It is clear to me that it’s almost impossible to prove risks of this sort. It is also difficult to carefully monitor potential exposure over the long term which is likely why there’s the addition in brackets “or is present in extremely small amounts”. Moreover, the American Cancer Institute report does acknowledge the off-gases from heating Teflon. That would be mostly PTFE and other related chemicals and should not be C8 (PFOA) if the pans are newer than 2015. Even so, that is of concern. A recent study (2017) reported in Environmental Science and Pollution regarding the breakdown of Teflon with heat concluded that “Only few studies describe the toxicity of PTFE but without solid conclusions. The toxicity and fate of ingested PTFE coatings are also not understood”.
From my assessments I take precautions. I only have one Teflon pan. It’s of high quality (not a Costco special) and I know it was manufactured recently in the US (thus C8 was likely was not used). I only use it on low heat to cook eggs and fish. I don’t use any metal utensils when cooking with my Teflon pan. I wash it with warm water and soap. It does not go in the dishwasher. For higher temperature cooking I use a cast iron frying pan. I have tossed all of my older Teflon pans especially when I could see scratches. I would also not recommend using Teflon baking pans which would be heated to higher temperatures and for longer times.
THE BIGGER QUESTION – FOREVER CHEMICALS – For years, scientists and environmental advocates have been concerned about persistent “forever chemicals,” which break down very slowly and can contaminate groundwater and end up in rivers and oceans. It is likely that there are about 4,700 varieties of PFAS chemicals in use. They make carpets and upholstery stain-resistant and help firefighters douse burning oil and gas. Some PFAS versions keep your burger from sticking to its fast-food wrapper, your salad from turning its fiber-based bowl into a soggy mess, and your popcorn bag from bursting into flames in the microwave. They are also used as fire retardants in furniture. Virtually all of us have detectable levels of PFAS (and even C8) in our blood.
As with the case of Teflon – how necessary is it that these chemicals are in such widespread use? How can governments better regulate their use to lower community exposure? And – how can individuals limit their own exposure?
OK – I have now committed myself to an article about this. Coming soon.
Link to American Cancer Institute Advisory
Link to Environmental Science and Pollution article – 2017