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Originally published August 8 2004

Teflon linked to birth defects and illness; but is it safe to use in cooking?

Dupont is facing new charges from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it concealed research showing that pregnant workers were passing on Teflon chemicals to their unborn children. The EPA has also accused Dupont of failing to report evidence that the chemicals used to manufacture Teflon had contaminated water supplies affecting 12,000 people in the local area. Many of those affected families are suing Dupont.

One individual was born with only one nostril and various facial defects and has decided to sue the company, claiming that Teflon chemicals caused his birth defects. Dupont, of course, denies that Teflon is unsafe for use in households, even though when Teflon is heated to a high enough temperature, it gives off fumes that are well known to kill parrots and other pet birds. So what's the real story on Teflon, and is this a safe chemical to use in your household?

My take on Teflon is that it is especially dangerous to workers who are present during the manufacturing process because they are far more likely to be exposed to readily available forms of Teflon chemicals. It's also a danger to communities who may depend on water supplies that could possibly be contaminated by Teflon manufacturing chemicals. However, I don't think Teflon is a huge danger to individuals in terms of using Teflon coated pans, as long as you keep them at a reasonable temperature. The only time Teflon gives off toxic fumes is when it is heated to a very high temperature, something like 600 degrees or more, in which case, yes, it can become dangerous. So if you keep your Teflon pans relatively cool, they are unlikely to give off these toxic fumes in any large quantities.

Again, it doesn't mean that Teflon is good for you, because it certainly is not good for you. A much healthier cooking pan would be an iron pan or stainless steel pans, but with those pans people tend to add a whole lot of cooking oils so that the food doesn't stick to the pan, whereas with Teflon you don't have to add the oil -- you can use water. When using nonstick pans, the added oils can present a health hazard that may be equal to or even greater to the hazard from using Teflon cookware.

Another consideration is the quality of the cookware you are using. I wouldn't even consider using low-cost Teflon cookware that you might purchase at Wal-Mart, for example. Instead I would only buy high-end Teflon coated pans and cookware available from trusted, high-end manufacturing companies. That kind of cookware tends to be a lot more expensive -- one good cooking wok, for example, may cost you $200. But you can be sure that the Teflon won't be peeling off and ending up in your food. Just to let you know, even though I am a stickler about toxic chemicals in the house, and home, I do use Teflon coated cookware. But once again, I keep the pans at relatively low temperatures and I use high-quality pans that are less likely to degrade and allow Teflon particles to enter my foods. I also tend to eat a lot more raw meals anyway, so I'm not cooking very frequently to begin with.

In summary, I'm not recommending that people use Teflon, but I also believe that there are far greater health risks in the average household than Teflon. For example, the health risk associated with the use of perfumes or colognes -- or any product containing artificial chemical fragrance -- is far greater, in my opinion, than any health risk associated with Teflon use. The risk of chronic disease from consuming chemical food additives such as sodium nitrite, MSG, or aspartame is perhaps thousands of times greater than any risk that would be associated with using Teflon. So for most people, if you are concerned about Teflon, I think you're focusing on the wrong area. The real risk to your health comes from other products, not from non-stick pans that use Teflon.

None of this is said as a defense for Dupont, by the way. I think Dupont has clearly engaged in some business practices that are unethical and that pose a health risk both to its employees and the families in the surrounding communities. Hopefully, the EPA will make sure Dupont must answer for its actions and repay the people who have been affected. To expose workers and families to health risks during the manufacturing process of Teflon is an unacceptable business practice.


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