Teflon makes life easy, but is it safe?
Nearly every American consumer is acquainted with the advantages of nonstick cookware. Omelets slide off the pan instead of sticking, and washing pots is a snap. Teflon practically sells itself. After two generations of Americans being raised on Teflon cookware and a myriad of other products boasting similar nonstick coatings, we are again learning that better living through chemistry often carries a hefty price.
Recent findings show that 95% of Americans have detectable levels of Teflon-related chemicals in their blood, that Teflon is persistent in the environment and toxic to pet birds and laboratory animals, and that practically no human studies can verify the safety of Teflon. With so much Teflon coursing through our veins, one would expect we'd have slippery blood, less plaque build-up, and fewer strokes and heart attacks. Alas, that is not the case.
Teflon is the brand name of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), discovered in 1938 by DuPont scientist, Roy J. Plunkett and introduced as a commercial product in 1946. DuPont patented Teflon in 1941 and registered the trademark in 1944. Teflon cookware has been supplemented with another DuPont product, Silverstone, a three-coat fluoropolymer system that produces a tougher finish than Teflon alone. (1)
Teflon was the first nonstick coating on pots and pans, but was easily scratched and scraped by ordinary kitchen utensils. Instead of getting trace amounts of iron from food cooked in cast iron pots, many of us got trace amounts of Teflon instead. Silverstone was the next generation of nonstick cookware, more durable that Teflon, but a related product. All nonstick cookware is akin to Teflon. Nonstick coatings have branched out of the kitchen into myriad consumer products. Examples include Stainmaster carpets; grease-resistant pizza boxes, fast food containers, microwave popcorn bags, and packaging for bakery items, drinks, and candy; Gore-Tex water repellent clothing and Stain Resistant fabrics; firefighting foam; computer chips; and phone cables. (2-4)
Canaries Then--Canaries Now
Coal mining has always been a dangerous job. In the early days, miners would take canaries into the mines to warn of toxic gas fumes not discernable to humans. Because of their small size and delicate structure, canaries would succumb more quickly to toxic emissions. When the canary stopped singing and fell off its perch, the miners knew it was time to get out. We can still learn an important lesson from canaries, if only we would pay attention.
According to veterinarian, Darrel K. Styles, PTFE intoxification, otherwise known as Teflon poisoning or Teflon toxicosis, "is a rapid and lethal gaseous intoxication of all species of birds." PTFE toxicity is caused by gaseous emission of the nonstick materials in cookware (Teflon, Silverstone, and all other brands). Toxicity occurs with very little warning. The only clinical signs of illness are birds dropping off their perches or showing severe respiratory distress (open-mouthed breathing, tail-bobbing, audible raspy breathing) followed quickly by death. (5) One grieving bird owner wrote to "Dear Abby" about losing his much-loved Amazon parrot to toxic fumes emitted from a burned Teflon pan. He wanted...