Teflon is a versatile product used in various industries as a coating agent. The NASA space program, for example, uses it on their crafts and clothes as well.
But, its applications extend to the manufacturing of industrial, pharmaceutical, and automotive products. Closer home, Teflon coating is commonly used in the making of many household products.
Teflon nonstick pans are common in most people’s kitchens. The US FDA approves them as safe food processing equipment.
What is Teflon Coating?
Teflon is not a product on its own, but a brand name of a product. It refers to a chemical coating known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).
It's a type of plastic sprayed on various items and then baked to create a nonstick, waterproof, noncorrosive, and nonreactive surface. This way, it creates a barrier between the product and the external elements that can harm it.
Concerns About Teflon Coating
The worry around Teflon coating was to do with some of its chemical properties. It used to contain perfluorooctanoic acid — or PFOA.
PFOA is a risk factor for health conditions like chronic kidney disease, liver disease, thyroid disorders, testicular cancers, low birth weight, and infertility.
Most manufacturers assumed that PFOA burns off during the process of manufacture, but traces of PFOA were found in some Teflon-coated cookware.
A 1999 study found that 98% of people in the United States had PFOA in their blood. This was due to environmental exposure to the chemical. As a result, the US EPA put up a program to eliminate the use of PFOA by 2015.
Another concern related to the use of Teflon coating is that particles of PTFE may flake off from the cookware made with Teflon coating. But, they do not cause any harm when ingested.
Is Chipped Teflon Coating a Health Concern?
The use of PFOA in the manufacturing of Teflon-coated cookware has been completely stopped. But, even when PFOA is used, it poses little or no harm to your health.
Teflon on its own is safe and can’t harm you when you ingest it. Particles of flaked or chipped pans that find themselves in food pass through your digestive system don’t pose any health risks.
Health Risks of Teflon Coating
Teflon is generally safe, but heating it to above 300 degrees Celsius or 570 degrees Fahrenheit poses a danger to your health.
At these temperatures, the stable Teflon begins to break down and releases polymer fumes. You may not immediately inhale the fumes because they may escape through the windows. But, continued exposure to these fumes can increase your health risks.
Initially, you may experience temporary symptoms that look like you have flu and experience a condition called polymer fume fever, where you have:
These symptoms may take a few hours to show up, and they may also disappear within a short time. However, if they persist, talk to your doctor for further medical advice.
Increased risk ofcancer. Exposure to high levels of PFOA may increase the risk of cancers including:
Increased risk of other health issues. Exposure to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or PFAS — like PFOA can cause:
The American Cancer Society notes that there are no other proven risks of using Teflon-coated cookware.
Risk to birds. Teflon coating fumes are deadly to birds since their respiratory systems are more fragile than ours. If you have parrots and other birds as pets, keep them away from the kitchen while cooking. If they are exposed to the fumes, they may struggle to breathe as their lungs hemorrhage and fill up with fluid, leading to suffocation and death.
Environmental Risks of Teflon Coating
While PFOA was eliminated from the manufacturing process, some groups concerned with the safety of the environment are wary of PTFE products.
This is because they pose a potential health impact. One concern arose after a replacement chemical for PFOA, GenX, was found in residential water. The replacement chemicals are persistent in the environment, and families have no way of determining how exposed they are to the chemicals.
According to the US CDC, these chemicals pollute the blood of US residents daily — regardless of their age. Animals in several areas have also been found to have the substances.