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The Sticky Side of Teflon

Dr Sreedevi Yadavalli

 
Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), most popularly known by the DuPont brand name Teflon, finds numerous applications.

It is used as a non-stick coating for pans and other cookware, in personal care products such as lens coatings for eyeglasses and nail hardeners for nail polish, as a stain protector in fabrics used to make clothing, to make carpets and other textiles stain-resistant, in marine coatings and in the semi-conductor and biotech manufacturing processes, and even as paint sealants.

It is used as a non-stick coating for pans and other cookware, in personal care products such as lens coatings for eyeglasses and nail hardeners for nail polish, as a stain protector in fabrics used to make clothing, to make carpets and other textiles stain-resistant, in marine coatings and in the semi-conductor and biotech manufacturing processes, and even as paint sealants.

The toxicity agent degenerates at high temperatures
Studies indicate that PFOA (also known as C8), a component of Teflon, is a toxicant and carcinogen in animals. It is persistent in the environment, and detected in the blood of general populations. It has been associated with infertility, birth defects, increased cancer rates, and changes to lipid levels, the immune system and liver – effects identified in animals.

Reports indicate that as many as 95 percent of Americans carry C8 in their blood. It was found in the umbilical cord blood of 99 percent of 300 babies born at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 2004, and has been detected in industrial waste, stain resistant carpets, house dust, microwave popcorn bags (as a residue of the wrapper used), water, food, and in Teflon.

But it is uncertain how people are exposed to this toxicity because non-stick cookware is not considered a significant exposure pathway.

The toxicity agent PTFE is normally stable and non-toxic, though it begins to deteriorate after temperature of cookware reaches about 260 C (392 F), and decompose above 350 C (660 F). These degradation products can be lethal to birds, and can cause flu-like symptoms in humans. But since the ‘smoking point’ of oil is lower than 260 C, Teflon can supposedly be safely used under normal conditions.

However, leaving an empty pan on the stove to become overheated can be dangerous as there have been instances of pet birds dropping dead suddenly – the culprit being an overheated Teflon coated pan – and of the house inmates exhibiting symptoms of human polymer fume fever, commonly called Teflon flu.

An independent scientific review panel advising the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that PFOA should be considered a "likely" carcinogen. And in a voluntary agreement with the EPA, eight major manufacturers have agreed to eliminate 95 percent of PFOA emissions by 2010, though they will continue to use the chemical in making non-stick finishes.
 
The Take Home Message
  • Don’t throw out your pans yet. Buying new cookware can be an expensive investment. Reducing cooking temperatures will minimize the fumes.
  • However, when you do replace your pans, choose cast iron, stainless steel or enamelled iron.
  • In the meantime, never leave a Teflon coated pan on the stove to become overheated. So whisk that egg for your omelette, or fetch your dosa batter from the fridge, before you heat your Teflon pan!
 

  
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