Remember the days before Teflon pans? Who can forget cooking foods in a heart-choking pound of butter and still watching them get superglued to the pan? Or the 30 minutes afterward spent bonding with steel wool in the struggle to scrape the whole mess clean? Then came Teflon and suddenly supper slid onto the spatula like a mealtime magic trick. Even Julia Child admits her favorite fryer is a simple Teflon pan. Which makes the news that Teflon pans may be polluting the planet the stuff of culinary conflict.
According to researchers at the University of Toronto, fluoropolymers, the substances used to make Teflon, release persistent gaseous breakdown products when heated to high temperatures. The released compounds include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), trifluoroacetate, (TFA) and polyfluorocarboxylic acids (PFOs).
For years scientists had been mystified by the background levels of TFA found in the general environment. They initially theorized that the chemicals used in air conditioners were responsible, but the amounts found in these devices didn't account for the contamination levels. So they took a look at fluoropolymers, a class of compound used in Teflon-coated frying pans, automobile additives, surgical tubing and Gore-Tex fabrics. Sure enough, chemical tests and computer modeling indicated that fluoropolymers broke down into TFA under certain conditions.
The three primary breakdown products of Teflon, CFCs, TFA, and PFOs are each associated with different hazards. CFCs linger in atmosphere for decades where they damage the ozone layer. TFA is thought to be mildly toxic to plants and seems to gravitate to wetlands. And PFOs have been shown to build-up in the human and animal tissues, an exposure outcome that recently lead 3M to phase out its PFO-containing Scotchguard line of products.
The fact that Teflon is created to last a long time means its breakdown products generally persist as well. This persistence is troubling because even though these breakdown chemicals are generally considered non-toxic, like many other similar materials, they may cause negative health effects in the longer term as they accumulate in the body. No one really knows because the subject simply hasn't been studied and many of the compounds in question are relatively new. Similarly, no one really knows if their building presence in the environment is causing any damage.
The good news is that the temperatures required for Teflon to breakdown into CFCs, TFA, and PFOs are quite high-between 400 and 900 degrees, and normal home cooking doesn't often reach these extremes.
Nonetheless, given this new information, all cooks among us are advised to take a precautionary approach to their Teflon frying pans and other non-stick cooking gear. Avoid using yours for high heat cooking in order to keep CFCs, TFA, and PFOs out of the environment and your food. Keep the Teflon surface of your cookware stable (and longer lasting) by avoiding sudden dramatic temperature changes (such as plunging a hot pan into cold water). Gentle, non-scouring handwashing instead of dishwasher cleaning will also greatly extend it's life and durability. If you're still a little chemically squeamish about your non-stick stuff, invest in a high quality cast iron frying pan and pay careful attention to the included seasoning and maintenance instructions. Properly seasoned cast iron can provide a natural Teflon-like surface free of chemical hazards.
Written by: Seventh Generation
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