Are Teflon-coated pans a health risk to birds and humans?

February 22, 2008

Dear Cecil:

Should I get rid of all of my Teflon-coated pans? I've been told by veterinarians that Teflon emits a gas that's deadly poison to pet birds (and wild ones too, presumably, but they don't eat in the kitchen). Am I slowly killing my beloved bird, or are these folks full of guano? -- iguana978

While we were making dinner the other night, my mother scolded me for owning Teflon pans. She has migrated to iron pans and pots exclusively, saying she heard the average iron level in Americans is down since Teflon pans have caught on. In addition, the Teflon scrapings I'm now eating are sitting around in my system and probably will cause me harm. I see where folks who lived close to a Teflon plant got sick and sued and won, but living near the plant and using Teflon cookware are two different things, right?

Right, and while that may seem like an elementary distinction, I'm glad you drew it, because many don't. The current word on Teflon is that it can be dangerous under some circumstances but is safe if used with reasonable care. Cars can be lethal too, but I'm betting mom's not telling you to get a horse. One proviso: the dangers of cars are well understood; the dangers of Teflon, not so much.

Do pans coated with Teflon, known to science as polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE, emit a gas that kills birds? Normally no, occasionally yes. PTFE poisoning, also called Teflon toxicity, occurs mainly when PTFE-coated pots, pans, or utensils overheat. Teflon is fairly stable at typical cooking temperatures, but heat it above 500 degrees and it starts to emit fumes that can sicken you and make a bird drop dead. People usually don't let their cookware get that hot, but it can happen if you preheat a dry pan, use a Teflon-coated drip tray, or just allow a Teflon-coated pot to boil dry. The emissions can lead to polymer fume fever, which DuPont, the maker of Teflon, warns can cause flulike symptoms in humans. Most sufferers recover quickly without treatment, but the medical journals mention instances of pulmonary edema, pneumonitis, and (rarely) death.

Why are birds at greater risk? It's the canary-in-the-coal-mine thing. To generate power for flight, birds have efficient lungs that can suck in oxygen and transfer it to their bloodstreams at an impressive rate. Unfortunately, if an airborne toxin is drifting past, their lungs will efficiently suck that in too. DuPont recommends never keeping birds in the kitchen if you cook with Teflon. Remember, Teflon can be used in many household products besides pots and pans, including coffeemakers, popcorn poppers, ironing board covers, and space heaters - and some of these can get pretty hot. While keeping a canary as a toxin detector is a little retro for my taste, if your pet bird keels over when you turn up the heat on one of the above, you've got a problem you need to fix fast.

Now to the effect of Teflon pans on iron in the diet. We know using cast-iron cookware can significantly increase the iron content of some foods, especially acidic ones like spaghetti sauce. We also know women of childbearing age have a much greater requirement for iron than men (18 milligrams a day versus 8) and don't get enough from the typical American diet. The question is whether iron is so hard to come by that we need cookware to supply it. Answer: of course not. It's easy enough to ramp up the iron-rich foods like red meat and beans, or if those don't suit you, iron-fortified cereal and iron supplements. Blaming Teflon for insufficient dietary iron is nonsense. The trend away from iron cookware is nearly a century old - folks have been spending more on aluminum cookware than all other metals combined since the 1930s, long before Teflon was common on pans. According to a USDA study of the American diet from 1900 to 1974, average iron consumption during that time went up, not down, chiefly due to the introduction of enriched flour in the 1940s.

But back to the real question. Will routine exposure to Teflon harm people? Lately the EPA and health advocates have been concerned about a chemical called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). It's used in Teflon manufacture but doesn't remain in the final product, or at least it's not supposed to. The majority of an EPA expert panel agreed that PFOA is likely to be carcinogenic in humans. Research continues, but indications so far are that the people mainly at risk from PFOA work in or live near factories that use the chemical - in 2004 DuPont reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with residents near one such plant in West Virginia and has agreed to reduce its use of PFOA. The EPA says ordinary consumers aren't in danger, so right now I wouldn't worry. Tomorrow, who knows?

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