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Are Teflon coated pans harmful?

Monday, October 23, 2006
For sheer convenience, Teflon coated pans often win out when it comes to what we cook with. They're so easy to use and clean — nothing sticks to them.

But is Teflon, the wonder compound we all love so much, potentially causing us harm?

Reporter Leila McKinnon visited the home of Teflon, Dupont, in Wilmington, Delaware, USA, where she met Dave Boothe, Dupont's Teflon guru.

Dupont scientists invented the non-stick sensation of Teflon in 1938. It's made from carbon and fluorine molecules that bond so strongly, food can't get a toehold and just slips straight off a Teflon-coated pan.

"It's a super polymer, very high in molecular weight, and it has some very unique capabilities — one of them is that it is very slippery," explains Dave.

Since Teflon's so slippery, extra fat doesn't have to be added to stop high-protein foods like meat sticking to the pan. Less oil means a much healthier diet.

Also, compared to the way food used to glue to old pans, Teflon wins in the washing up stakes hands down.

The benefits of cooking with Teflon pans are clear to anybody who's ever used them, but what about the drawbacks? Some people say there are safety concerns about Teflon; that dangerous chemicals are released from the pans when you cook.

The test

Richard Wiles thinks Teflon is a potential danger in the kitchen and is with a lobby group that's worried about a chemical used to make Teflon. This chemical is called per-fluoro-octanoic acid — PFOA.

Earlier this year, the American Environmental Protection Agency declared PFOA might cause cancer.

"Ninety-five percent of Americans have PFOA in their blood stream," says Richard Wiles. "And it was classified as a likely human carcinogen."

According to Richard, if you overheat a Teflon pan, PFOA and other dangerous chemicals can be released.

"I think we've all done it. The problem is that when you do it with Teflon, you produce a pretty hazardous situation," he says.

With the help of Richard's colleague at the Environmental Working Group, Lauren Sucher, Leila is going to find out how hard it is to overheat a Teflon pan.

The danger figure is 260 degrees Celsius. Below that, both environmentalists and Dupont agree that you're safe.

Five minutes into Lauren and Leila's test of a pan cooking bacon, the pan is 162 degrees Celsius, but it's levelling out.

They give it some more gas and hit 180 degrees Celsius, which is about as hot as the pan's going to get without burning the food.

The results

Under normal cooking conditions, Lauren and Leila didn't get close to the danger level of 260 degrees Celsius.

"If you get above that in your cooking, and remember tens, hundreds of millions of these pans have been used over 40, 50 years, then what's going to happen is you're going to burn the food," says Dave Boothe.

But what if you left a dry pan unattended — could that get up around 260 degrees Celsius?

Lauren and Leila give it a go, and the temperature climbs much faster. They notice a chemical smell.

"What you saw is that the pan heated up to very high temperatures within two to three minutes," says Lauren. "And it's very easy to turn on your stove, put a pan on because you're getting ready to make dinner or lunch, and then get distracted by the phone, by your children — by anything. And the house will fill up with these fumes very quickly."

Dupont's Dave Boothe says that, even so, there's little medical evidence those fumes are unsafe for humans.

"Pans that are coated with fluoro polymers like Teflon are safe for people to use," he says. "And it's not just Dupont that says that. It's verified by independent government testing from around the world."

"When you peel that back and look at what that means, it usually means there's very little data on one particular chemical, in a stew of chemicals that were tested under laboratory conditions that don't really reflect what people are exposed to," responds Richard Wiles.

Apart from this argument, it's worth noting that in professional kitchens, you probably won't find too many Teflon fans.

Jason Hannah is from the He Cooks Cooking School.

"I'll actually show you what's wrong with the Teflon pan," he says, picking one up. "I've got a set of tongs here. Metal tongs. And non-stick pans are the one thing you can't use metal utensils on."

Jason scratches the Teflon with the tongs. "You can see there it just starts to peel off and it flakes. It scratches. By scratching that surface you're exposing the aluminium underneath. And by doing that you're making the pan worthless."

Don't worry about those little bits of Teflon ending up inside you, though, because they're harmless. However, when a pan starts doing this, it's time to replace it.

Conclusion

So both sides of the argument agree that, used correctly, under normal conditions, your Teflon pans are perfectly safe.

It's important to note that no health authority has ever been worried enough to ban Teflon-coated non-stick pans in America, or anywhere else.

In the interests of prolonging the life of your cookware and for your own peace of mind, however, it pays to follow the manufacturer's instructions and not overheat your pots and pans.

Fast facts

What's the best alternative to Teflon pans? Many chefs prefer copper pans because they conduct heat quickly. Those who say Teflon's not the safest recommend cast iron pans. They pose no health problem and after they've been used a few times, they develop a natural slippery surface that's nearly as good as a non-stick pan.

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