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Teflon Canary In The Cookware Coal Mine

From the very early days of mining people knew dangerous gasses were sometimes released from digging.

In fact, these old-time miners developed a trick to detect if fumes were present, even if they couldn’t smell them. They’d carry cages with canaries in them down into the mines each day.

The reason? Canaries would keel over long before any human could detect the presence of toxic fumes. These canaries saved many human lives with their early warnings.

Even though modern mining methods detect gasses using sensitive instruments, canaries and similar birds are still able to tell us when something dangerous is happening.

Case in point: Teflon coated cookware.

Attentive bird owners know that they should never prepare food with Teflon and similarly coated cookware. The reason? If this cookware gets too hot, their birds will keel over and die.

There are actually two levels of toxic fumes that can come from these non-stick pots and pans. The first level of poisonous vapors gets released at between 350 and 450 degrees. It’s a vapor of PTFE (Polytetraflourethylene, aka Teflon) that can cause flu-like symptoms in humans. This is called Polymer fume fever, or “Teflon flu.”

That’s bad enough, but if the pan gets overheated above 450 degrees, the fumes change and can cause acute lung injury and affect white blood cells (leukocytes).

Fortunately, you don’t have to use these dangerous pots and pans. Good substitutes include stainless steel and cast iron cookware. Both are time-tested and work well. And if you don’t want to deal with excessive sticking of food in these pans, be sure to coat them with olive oil spray or a similar cooking oil before adding the food.


References:

Canaries in the Kitchen: Teflon Toxicosis” from the Environmental Working Group (EWG)

PubMed.gov Article on Polymer Flume Fever

Athan, Mattie Sue, Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot, p. 126, Barron’s Educational Service, 1993

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • SaraFebruary 28, 2011, 10:47 am

    Hi Dr. Bruce — I applaud the idea of creating a safer home, and because there’s so much misinformation out there about Teflon, I’m not surprised that you are concerned. I’m a representative of DuPont though, and hope you’ll let me share some information with you and your readers so that everyone can make truly informed decisions.

    Regulatory agencies, consumer groups and health associations all have taken a close look at Teflon. This article highlights what they found — the bottom line is that you can use Teflon without worry.

    http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/home-garden/kitchen/cookware-bakeware-cutlery/nonstick-pans-6-07/overview/0607_pans_ov_1.htm

    I’d truly be glad to share additional information about it if you are interested, and appreciate your consideration of this comment. Cheers, Sara.

  • Dr. BruceFebruary 28, 2011, 6:59 pm

    Hi Sara,

    I’m sure some people will be relieved to read the Consumer Reports article on teflon.

    Here are my comments on the article:

    1) There were measurable amounts of PFOA found in the testing. Although the article described this as “very little,” it definitely didn’t say “none.” It also didn’t give us the actual number, which is perhaps excusable for a consumer-based publication, but not comforting to those of us who look at actual numbers.

    2) If I understood correctly they also reported that older teflon-coated pans had even less PFOA fumes when heated. They referred to this as “barely measurable.” Why does an older, presumably more used pan have less fumes? The obvious assumption is that those pans have steadily released PFOA over their lifetime of use.

    3) The article rightly points out the multiple sources of PFOAs in modern life. These include waterproof fabrics and electronic parts. Since we’re exposed to multiple sources, it’s both unfair to demonize teflon as the only source of this toxin and at the same time unreasonable to think that there isn’t a cumulative effect of multiple source exposure. Research shows that PFOA is present in everyone’s body.

    4) The article points out that pet birds can die when exposed to fumes from teflon pans and there are cases of people who report flu-like symptoms when using them. As a practitioner who has a fair number of highly sensitive patients, I probably have more exposure to the potential effects of exposure to toxins than most people. This was, in fact, the inspiration for the title of my post.

    5) The article also points out that PFOA can take years to clear from the body, can cause cancer in lab animals and exists forever in the environment. Where’s the good in any of that?

    My thoughts aside for a moment, for those who choose to use them, I heartily endorse the article’s recommendations for using teflon (and all non-stick) pans – use ventilation when cooking, don’t put empty pans over very high heat, and toss pans that have started to flake. This won’t eliminate the potential problem, but will minimize it.

    Personally, we’ve chosen not to use non-stick pans at my house. My thinking is that there are enough unavoidable sources of PFOA as mentioned in the article, so why add a source we can avoid completely?

    Dr. Bruce

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