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From the Townsend Letter
June 2006

Health Risks & Environmental Issues
Teflon Makes Life Easy, But Is It Safe?
by Rose Marie Williams, MA

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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.

Is Teflon safe?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 to warn others "that Teflon fumes are deadly to birds" and "harmful to small children."6

PTFE gas causes severe edematous pneumonia. The blood capillaries in the lungs hemorrhage, and the bird drowns in its own body fluid. Winter months when homes are tightly closed with poor air circulation can be even worse. Birds have also been killed by toxic gaseous emissions from Teflon-coated heat lamps and range burners.5,7

Toxicity occurs when the nonstick materials are overheated. The gas travels rapidly, and birds begin to die or become ill according to their proximity to the fumes. There are no warning labels on Teflon, even though DuPont publicly acknowledges that Teflon can kill birds. It takes less toxic exposure to kill smaller birds, but all birds are at risk. Dr. Styles suggests keeping pet birds out of the kitchen.5,7 There does not appear to be any warning regarding babies or young children.

Health Risks
Polymer fume fever is the term used when individuals are sickened by toxic Teflon emissions. Symptoms of polymer fume fever include chest tightness, malaise, shortness of breath, headache, chills, cough, sore throat. and temperature between 100° and 104°F. All symptoms are characteristic of the common flu.3,7

DuPont has not studied the incidence of sickness among the millions of people worldwide using coated pots and pans, nor has the US government assessed the safety of nonstick cookware. In 1960, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Teflon for contact with food based on a study of cooking hamburgers on a heat-worn pan.

This did result in higher levels of Teflon in the meat, but was not considered to be a health risk at that time. The government has conducted no further safety tests of Teflon chemicals off-gassing in food or of the potential effects to humans from inhalation exposures, although several of the off-gas chemicals are considered highly toxic.3,7

Perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA) is used to make Teflon for nonstick cookware and is linked to coatings on raincoats and take-out food containers. PFOA is classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a persistent chemical and a "potential" carcinogen. As previously mentioned, the chemical appears to be present in the blood of 95% of all Americans. The exact mechanism of exposure is little understood. One possible explanation is the deterioration of water- and grease-repellent coatings used on raincoats, take-out food containers, and stain-resistant carpets.8

PFOA causes cancer and other health problems in laboratory animals. Further animal studies by the EPA found that fluorotelomers, chemicals used in food packaging, rugs, and clothing break down into PFOAs in the environment, and when ingested. The PFOAs themselves are persistent and do not break down. According to the FDA, PFOA in microwave popcorn bags migrates to the oil during heating, but the FDA claims levels are too low to be a health risk.9

According to a study by the 3M company, of 600 children tested, 96% had PFOA in their blood. Researchers at John Hopkins Hospital has found PFOA in the umbilical cord blood of 99% of newborns tested over a five-month period. Scientists are finally beginning to study the potential harm to newborn babies. Newborns are more vulnerable to toxins, and researchers want to know what harm might come from this ubiquitous toxic chemical. PFOA has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals, and is in the blood of marine organisms and arctic polar bears.9-11

New findings by the advocacy organization, Environmental Working Group (EWG), may force the EPA to embark on a full-scale risk assessment to determine how much risk the chemical poses to public health at current levels in humans. Tim Kropp, EWG toxicologist, said his analysis showed the biggest risk is breast cancer.8

Teflon Outgases Multiple Toxins
On one hand, DuPont maintains all Teflon-coated cookware is safe because none of the PFOA used to make Teflon remains in the finished product. On the other hand, DuPont acknowledges that heating empty Teflon-coated pans releases toxic fumes, but only at temperatures exceeding 660°F (340°C). There is currently a class-action suit filed by several states claiming Teflon releases PFOA under normal cooking use and that the company did not warn consumers about its dangers.7,9

Independent tests show that preheating nonstick cookware can raise the temperature to 736°F in three minutes and 20 seconds. DuPont's own tests indicate Teflon off-gases toxic particulates at 446°F At 680°F, Teflon pans emit six serious toxins. Coated drip pans easily reach 1000°F, at which temperature, the coatings break down to a chemical warfare agent (PFIB) and phosgene (the chemical analog of a WWII nerve gas).3,7

Studies show that when used on conventional stoves, Teflon chemicals break down into dangerous particulates and gases, including two chemicals linked to cancer or tumors in lab animals (PFOA, TFE), two potent global warming gases (PFB, CF4), two chemical warfare agents (PFB, MFA), and a chemical analog of WWII nerve gas, phosgene (COF2).3

When nonstick coatings are heated during normal cooking, a complex mixture of gases is produced that changes composition relative to temperature changes. Lacking adequate human studies, the following information is extracted from animal studies:

• 464°F Teflon produces toxic ultra fine particles, causing severe lung damage to rats within ten minutes of exposure and death at longer exposures.

• 680°F Tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) causes cancer in lab animals (tumors of the kidney, liver, and a form of leukemia). It is a suspected human carcinogen.

• 680°F Hexaflouropropene (HFP) exposure may cause eye, nose, throat irritation; irregular heart rate, palpitation; headaches, lightheadedness; fluid accumulation in the lung (edema); and possibly death. Exposed workers may experience decreased memory, learning, and motor skills. Inhalation of HFP by mice and rats causes decreased number of lymphocytes (type of immune cells) and increased urination. HFP promotes chromosomal abnormalities in hamster ovaries. (HFP is sometimes added to pesticides as an "inert" ingredient.)

• 680°F Trifluoroactic acid (TFA) has caused decreased growth of fetal rat bone-forming cells (osteoblasts) and cartilage cells (chondrocytes), and neural tube defects in rat embryos. TFA is toxic to plants, and it is persistent. Long-term environ-mental impacts remain unknown.

• 680°F Monofluoroacetic acid (MFA) is extremely toxic and lethal to humans in doses as low as 0.7 to 2.1 mg/kg. Exposure may cause nausea, vomiting, tingling, muscle twitching, low blood pressure, and blurred vision. High exposure is associated with irregular heart rate (ventricular fibrillation) and heart attacks.

• 680°F Perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA) never breaks down in the environment and has become ubiquitous in the blood of Americans. It is very toxic to rats and monkeys. In rats, PFOA causes tumors of the liver, pancreas, mammary gland (breast), and testes. It also decreases thyroid hormone levels.3

Government Finally Takes Action
After fifty years of Teflon use, neither industry nor government has conducted full-scale tests on the safety of this now ubiquitous consumer product. New controversy has been ignited by the EWG, which is raising serious questions about health risks associated with Teflon-related chemicals.

Our government can no longer ignore the problem, another case of closing the barn door after the horses have escaped. Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at EWG, who is conducting independent studies on Teflon-related toxins, comments, "(H)ow could they not be in our blood? They're in such a huge range of consumer products…Teflon, Stainmaster, Gore-Tex, Silverstone. If you buy clothing that's coated with Teflon or something else that protects it from dirt and stains, those chemicals can absorb directly through the skin. It's a potential threat," claims Houlihan, "blood levels are too close to the levels that harm lab animals."3

EWG looked at 16 peer-reviewed studies detailing 50 years worth of experiments showing that heated Teflon decomposes to 15 types of toxic gases and particles. Many of the studies were done by scientists at DuPont, who were looking into polymer fume fever among workers, which can develop into pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal condition. Cases of polymer fume fever have been reported from home kitchen exposures. Are we really that different from canaries?3

The US EPA is now taking action to eliminate use of a controversial chemical used in the manufacture of Teflon and other nonstick and stain-resistant coatings. DuPont, 3M, Ciba, and other companies that use or manufacture PFOA have been advised to reduce environmental releases by 95% no later than the year 2010 and to eliminate sources of exposure by 2015. The companies would still use it to manufacture Teflon and similar products, but claim new technology would ensure that PFOA would not get into the environment from plants or products. To protect industry from unnecessary economic loss, the sale of current supplies of the controversial chemical will be allowed for an additional five years.4,11

If the independent federal science advisory board recommends that government reclassify the chemical as a "likely" carcinogen in humans, the board could require a new set of federal regulations. The EWG has been pushing for reclassification of PFOA. Ken Cook, EWG's president, praised DuPont and the EPA for working towards a solution.11

Speaking on behalf of the EPA, Susan B. Hazen indicated that consumers using household products with nonstick coatings need not worry because scientific studies have not established an increased risk of cancer. Nor have studies established that there is no risk of cancer.11

DuPont Pays a Pittance
DuPont is accused of ignoring and hiding information about health risks associated with Teflon products for more than twenty years, until recently when the EWG uncovered revealing information and a former top engineer detailed DuPont's cover-up of contaminating human blood for 18 years. DuPont agreed to pay the largest administrative EPA fine in history, $16.5 million, a mere pittance of the maximum fine of $314 million.3,10,12

The $16.5 million fine is a one-time payout for nearly a half-century of profiting and polluting practically the entire American population. Teflon-related products have been in the market place for over forty years with estimated sales at $2 billion per year.3 Broken down into simpler numbers, the fine amounts to only $825 per $100,000 earnings for one year. Divided by fifteen years, the fine drops to a mere $55 per $100,000 earnings. When large industries pollute and cause untold risks to human health and the environment, the real cost for medical care and clean-up falls upon the taxpayer.

The EWG suggests consumers use nonstick cookware at low temperatures and never preheat without food or liquid to reduce toxic gas emissions. Avoid using cardboard containers in the microwave to heat greasy food. In both instances, glass or Corning-ware containers are preferable. Uncoated stainless steel and cast iron are good choices for stove cooking.9

Teflon chemical coatings are found in stain-resistant carpeting, fabric, and clothing, including some children's clothing bearing Teflon labels. Pizza boxes, fast food containers, and microwave popcorn bags have a grease-resistant Teflon coating. Health-minded consumers may wish to minimize exposure to these products.

Rose Marie Williams, MA
156 Sparkling Ridge Road
New Paltz, New York 12561 USA
845-255-0836, Fax 845-255-5101

More information is available at the following web sites:

1. Teflon, Wikipedia [online]. Available at: Accessed March 15, 2006.
2. Look what's sticking.
Sierra Mgz. Jan/Feb 2006.
3. Teflon, Tuberose, self-help alt. med. site [online]. Available at: Accessed March 15, 2006.
4. DuPont answers EPA call to address teflon danger, Assoc. Press, January 25, 2006. Available at: Accessed March 15, 2006.
5. Styles, D, DVM. Teflon™ poisoning: the silent killer.
Old World Aviaries [online]. Available at: Accessed March 15, 2006.
6. Van Buren, Abigail,
Times Herald-Record, Middletown, NY. May 7, 2005.
7. Canaries in the kitchen.
Environmental Working Group [online]. Available at: Accessed March 15, 2006.
8. Common chemical is linked to cancer. Knight-Rider News Service.
Poughkeepsie Journal, Poughkeepsie, NY. June 29,2005.
9. Burros, M. Is there an extra ingredient in nonstick pans?
New York Times. July 27, 2005.
10. Red flag over teflon. CBS News [online]. Available at:
. Accessed March 15, 2006.
11. Eilperin, J. Harmful teflon chemical to be eliminated by 2015.
Wash. Post [online]. January 26, 2006. (5/24/06: No longer available at: Accessed March 15, 2006. Note: Since it's now more than 60 days since publication, the full text of the article is available for a fee. An abstract of the story is online.)
12. Casey, M, Sucher, L. Former DuPont top expert: company denies covered up pollution of american's blood for 18 years [online]. Available at: Accessed March 15, 2006.


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