I was surprised to read that today, April 6, is National Teflon Day – Dr. Roy Plunkett apparently introduced the new Teflon coating on this day in on 1938. Turns out, it may be a sticky issue after all.
I’ve never liked the idea of cooking with Teflon. (Give me stainless steel or cast iron or even glass cookware any day of the week.) In fact, my omelet pan is the only piece of Teflon coated cookware that I own. I only use it in a pinch since the Teflon coating is beginning to wear thin – which means all those Teflon chemicals are probably circulating through my system.
So I will celebrate Teflon Day by tossing my only remaining Teflon coated skillet. May he/she? rest in peace and not leach any of its toxic stuff into the landfill.
I wonder why Teflon is still on the market if it’s not really safe. The answer is that there is some debate over the matter. The name “Teflon” can refer to one of three substances: polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), perfluoalkoxy polymer resin (PFA), or fluorinated ethylene-propylene (FEP). Of these three, PTFE is the substance most people are familiar with as “Teflon”; it is the heat-resistant substance used as a non-stick cookware coating.
PTFE itself is nontoxic and inert chemically. It has a melting point of 327° Celsius, which translates to around 620° Fahrenheit-well above what any non-commercial use would achieve, and in fact still above what most commercial uses would need.
The difficulty lies in the fact that PTFE begins to degrade when it reaches 500° Fahrenheit; this degradation emits fumes which are toxic to gas-sensitive animals, particularly birds. Moreover, one of the chemicals used in the production of PTFE has been declared to be carcinogen.
Most cookware should not reach the temperature where PTFE beings to degrade, unless it is left unattended and unused on a hot burner for a period of time. PTFE requires a minimum of 500° Fahrenheit temperature to begin degrading, but cooking is done well below that point. For comparison, most meat (the highest-temperature requiring substance most people cook) is typically cooked at about 400-450° Fahrenheit.
The next issue is that of carcinogenic chemicals. PTFE itself is not a carcinogen, nor is it believed to be toxic. However, one of the chemicals used in the production of PTFE, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), was declared a carcinogen by the FDA in 2005. PFOA is the only substance that is currently known to be able to create PTFE properly, but DuPont has agreed to phase its use out of cookware Teflon production by 2015.
I don’t know about you, but I doubt the convenience of Teflon is worth the risk.