Teflon is a brand name for a synthetic chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). It is a polymer form of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals” because of their extreme longevity in the environment (The Ecology Center). Teflon was introduced in commercial use in the 1940s and has had a variety of applications since then because it possesses such valuable characteristics as thermal, electrical, and chemical stability and low friction (Sajid and Ilyas 23436).
For example, it is used in the production of bearings and gaskets, lamp bulbs, and fabric protectors (Pietrangelo; Sajid and Ilyas 23436). Yet, the most well-known use of Teflon is the coating material for cooking utensils, especially pans. To produce a Teflon non-stick pan, manufacturers spray the coating polymer on cast iron, aluminum, or stainless steel and subject it to high temperatures (Sajid and Ilyas 23436). Due to the versatile stability and low friction of Teflon, the pans coated with this material are non-stick and are easily washed. However, the research into Teflon non-stick pans has revealed that this cookware has some safety issues that have to be considered by customers and manufacturers.
Safety for Humans
According to Pietrangelo, prior to 2013, Teflon non-stick pans were manufactured using perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). However, studies conducted in lab animals and humans showed that PFOA might cause certain types of cancer, including tumors in breasts, liver, testicles, and pancreas (American Cancer Society). As a result, PFOA has been classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” and has been completely or almost completely eliminated from the Teflon production process (American Cancer Society). Thus, currently, Teflon non-stick pans are considered safer than before.
Yet, researchers still doubt whether Teflon can be regarded as an entirely safe material for use in non-stick pans. According to Sajid and Ilyas, Teflon is completely safe in a polymer form because of its chemical inertness (23436). However, when it is heated to the temperature of 260 °C and higher, it starts to release polymer fumes into the air (Sajid and Ilyas 23436). This temperature can be achieved when searing meat in an oven or grill, so people using Teflon non-stick pans can be subject to these fumes.
Further, when a Teflon pan is heated to a temperature of about 400 °C, which is possible if one leaves it for eight minutes on a switched-on conventional stove, it can cause a polymer fume fever (Sajid and Ilyas 23436). While it is not dangerous for healthy people, who will be free from symptoms within 12 to 48 hours, polymer fumes can cause severe complications in individuals with cardio-respiratory disease (Pietrangelo). If Teflon is heated to even greater temperatures, it can decompose into components, the toxicity of which has not been researched yet.
Teflon non-stick pans are not distinguished by long-lasting durability, especially cheap ones. Teflon coating starts damaging over time, and it is easily damaged by sharp objects, such as knives or forks, or abrasive cleaners. It poses another threat to human safety because the particles of the coating become part of the food. Scientists have not come to an agreement on whether Teflon particles are harmful when they get into the human body. Some researchers believe that Teflon cannot enter cells because of its stability and high molecular weight, while others think that its nanoparticles can penetrate cells (The Ecology Center). Furthermore, Teflon is not soluble in water, so it is difficult to predict how it will leave the body.
While Teflon non-stick pans can potentially harm the health of humans in everyday life, they also have some environmental safety issues related to the process of manufacturing and disposal of this cookware. Teflon and other PFAS are responsible for significant contamination of air, water, and soil (The Ecology Center). The pollution happens at different stages of manufacturing of Teflon non-stick pans, from the production of PFAS to coating pans with Teflon. The wastes that go to the soil, water, and air do not stay in one place; rather, they travel to different locations with winds, rains, and underground waters, thus threatening multiple communities (The Ecology Center). Since Teflon and similar substances have extreme longevity in the environment, they tend to accumulate and harm the nature and the health of humans living in contaminated areas.
The process of disposal of Teflon non-stick pans also has safety issues. When Teflon pans are thrown away, they can be disposed of in three major ways: incineration, landfilling, and recycling (The Ecology Center). Each of these three ways has certain environmental risks.
When Teflon pans are incinerated, Teflon is decomposed into various chemicals, the toxicity of which is still not known for sure (The Ecology Center). When such pans are directly buried in a landfill, they do not cause environmental harm, but if they have been burned to ashes before landfilling, the harmful chemicals can leach into the underground water (The Ecology Center). Finally, during recycling, metals are divided into ferrous and non-ferrous, so Teflon coating would be burned to separate it from the metal, which also leads to the emanation of fumes of understudied toxicity.
Safe Use of Teflon and Possible Substitutes
Although Teflon non-stick pans have some safety concerns, people should not reject using them. To make the use of Teflon pans safe, one should replace damaged cookware, use low and medium heat, not leave empty pans on a heated stove, avoid scratching the surface, and air the room when cooking at high temperatures (Pietrangelo). It is also possible to substitute Teflon non-stick pans with safer alternatives, such as cast iron, stainless steel, or copper cookware, as well as pans with ceramic coatings.
American Cancer Society. “Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), Teflon, and Related Chemicals.” American Cancer Society. 2020. Web.
The Ecology Center. “What’s Cooking? PFAS and Other Chemical Hazards in Nonstick Cooking and Baking Pans.” Healthy Stuff, 2020. Web.
Pietrangelo, Ann. “Can Teflon Cookware Increase Your Risk of Cancer?” Healthline. 2020. Web.
Sajid, Muhammad, and Muhammad Ilyas. (2017). PTFE-Coated Non-Stick Cookware and Toxicity Concerns: A Perspective.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research, vol. 24, no. 30, pp. 23436–23440.