Teflon is a registered trademark and a brand name owned by Chemours (a spinoff of Dupont), and is best known for the Teflon pans and cookware, although it is used on a range of products. Its popularity is due to its characteristics like easy clean, nonstick, repellency and durablity. The chemical name is Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and it is a synthetic fluoropolymer of tetrafluoroethylene (carbon and fluorine atoms).
Over the past decade, the safety of nonstick cookware has been under investigation, because of concerns about a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid, also called C8 (PFOA). PFOA has been linked to a number of health conditions, including infertility and low birth weight, thyroid disorders, chronic kidney disease, liver disease and testicular cancer. In 2004, the EPA took administrative action against DuPont, accusing the company of failing to report risk of injury to human health and to the environment due to exposure to PFOA. In 2006, the EPA launched a PFOA stewardship program, inviting the 8 major fluoropolymer and telomer manufacturers to participate in eliminating the use of PFOA from emissions and product content by 2015. The first goal was to reduce emissions and content of PFOA by 95 percent by 2010. Most of the companies, including DuPont and 3M, met or exceeded that goal, so the industry is well on its way to its goal of eliminating the use of PFOA completely. But PFOA-free doesn’t necessarily mean safe. While PFOA is no longer being used in the U.S., similar chemicals are now being used to replace it (PFOA, a long-chain perfluorinated compound has been replaced by short-chain perfluorinated compounds). Some food wrappers, beverage containers, pizza boxes and other food packaging may also be PFOA-free, but not necessarily safe, as the PFOA replacement chemicals have not been adequately tested for safety. In 2015, more than 220 scientists and health professionals from around the world signed a consensus statement (the Madrid Statement) calling on the international community to limit production and use of all these chemicals, both short-chain and long-chain, and to develop safer nonfluorinated alternatives; consumers were also advised, whenever possible, to avoid using products containing them.
Thus, new Teflon products seem safe, but at temperatures above 570°F (300°C), Teflon coatings on nonstick cookware start to break down, releasing toxic chemicals into the air. Inhaling these fumes may lead to polymer fume fever, also known as the Teflon flu. Symptoms are temporary, flu-like such as chills, fever, headache and body aches, occurring after 4–10 hours of exposure. The condition usually resolves within 12–48 hours. Note that typical temperatures for frying foods range from 130 ºC for fish fillets to 280 ºC for steak (266 ºF, 536 ºF, respectively) and the maximum temperature for most household ovens is 500 ºF.
The FDA states that Teflon products are safe to use, but there are some precautions you can take when using nonstick cookware and bakeware:
Don’t preheat an empty pan: Empty pans can reach high temperatures within minutes, potentially causing the release of polymer fumes. Make sure you have some food or liquid in pots and pans before you preheat.
Avoid cooking on high heat: Cook on medium or low heat and avoid broiling, since this cooking technique requires temperatures above those recommended for nonstick cookware.
Ventilate your kitchen: When you’re cooking, turn on your exhaust fan or open up windows to help clear any fumes.
Use wooden, silicone or plastic utensils: Metal utensils can lead to scuffs and scratches on the nonstick surface, reducing the life of your cookware.
Hand wash: Gently wash pots and pans with a sponge and soapy, warm water. Avoid using steel wool or scouring pads, since they can scratch the surface.
Replace old cookware: When Teflon coatings start to visibly deteriorate with excessive scratches, peeling, flaking and chipping, they are ready to be replaced.
If you want to be on the safe side, choose traditional cookware like stainless steel pans, cast-iron cookware, stoneware, ceramic cookware or alternatives like silicone cookware and eco-friendly nonstick cookware.
If you want to avoid PFC´s altogether (they can also be found in carpets, waterproof clothing, popcorn bags, food wrappers etc.), read this guide on EWG´s website.