Hi Alice,

I have a frying pan from which the Teflon coating is beginning to flake off. Last night I was cooking a dish involving a white sauce when I noticed what could only have been flakes of Teflon in the sauce. I threw the meal out, as I had a roommate tell me one time that Teflon is poisonous; but flaky Teflon frying pans seem pretty common. I couldn't find anything on the web to say that Teflon was bad for you in that form. Are there any health risks that go with eating from pans where the Teflon is coming off?

Dear Reader,

Teflon, which is one manufacturer's name for polytetrafluoethylene (PTFE), is used to produce non-stick coated cookware. This chemical is inert (not active or reactive), so if it's ingested, it will travel through your system without being absorbed. While there seems to be a lack of consensus on the dangers of Teflon in food and other materials, such as implants or household objects, most studies point out that the health risks associated with PTFE remain relatively small.  Although Teflon shouldn’t do you any harm if you accidentally eat a tiny bit of it, it’s probably best not to eat something that has flakes of PTFE visible.  

Studies have shown that with normal use, there is a negligible amount of PTFE that migrates into food from well-maintained cookware. There is some danger involved, however, when heating pans treated with PTFE to very high temperatures. When heated to over 300 degrees Celsius / 572 degrees Fahrenheit (a temperature you won't likely reach intentionally on your stove or in your oven), PTFE can break down and release a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

PFOA fumes can cause an illness resembling the flu, with symptoms including tightening of the chest, mild coughing, nausea, and sweats. It's called polymer fume fever, and it's rare. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether PFOA is carcinogenic, and there have been recent health and environmental concerns over the manufacturing process of PTFE and other chemicals such as PFOA that are used to make it.

Birds, however, are a different story. You'll find lots of testimonials on-line from bird owners that heating PTFE products, even to normal cooking temperatures, releases sufficient fumes to kill their birds. So you might want to be careful with non-stick pans coated with PTFE if you've got birds in the house.

You can prevent a lot of PTFE flaking by not using sharp, metal utensils; they scratch the non-stick surface and cause all that flaking. Instead, opt for wooden or plastic ones. The scratches and flakes are unsightly and can release bits of dark PTFE specks in your otherwise spotless white sauce, and, most importantly, reduce the non-stick effectiveness of the pan. If your PTFE pans are getting flaky, it might be time to buy some new ones. If you're really concerned, you may want to switch to using cast iron, stainless steel, or other pans instead.

Alice!

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