It’s a household name for the world’s slickest non-stick pans. You’ve probably heard of Teflon before, and likely even have it in your kitchen. So what’s the big deal?
If you’ve been watching the news or shopping for the latest kitchen gear, you may have noticed new and alarming questions about Teflon and if it’s actually safe to use. We took a 20 hour deep dive to understand the substance behind these claims, and to investigate if you should be concerned.
What is Teflon?
Teflon is the most popular brand name for a slippery polymer substance called Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Just like Kleenex, Velcro or ChapStick the name Teflon is so widely used that it’s become a generic term.
PTFE is probably best known for its use in non-stick cookware, but it can also be found in water-repelling fabrics, communications cables, kid-resistant interior paint, automobiles and even on the international space station.
What makes PTFE so unique is a rare combination of qualities. PTFE coatings are resistant to chemicals, extreme temperatures and corrosion. The material has low permeability which, practically speaking, means that tiny food particles won’t easily penetrate it. And most-famously, PTFE is one of the most slippery materials known to man.
It’s slick as ice and can be mass produced with ease.
Like many of our society’s innovations, including the inventions of penicillin and silly putty, the discovery of PTFE was a total accident.
A chemist for DuPont was researching new refrigerant gasses in 1938. His team stored a gas sample in a pressurized container over dry ice, and when they returned the next day it had transformed into a slippery solid powder that came to be known as Teflon.
This material was used in industry and manufacturing applications for years before the first consumer non-stick cooking applications came out. In the early 1950s, a French fisherman began coating his gear with Teflon. When his wife asked him to add a layer on her kitchen pan, the first non-stick cookware (called Tefal) was born.
From humble beginnings, nonstick cookware has grown into a $9bn industry. Almost half of the market uses a PTFE-coating for its nonstick material. Smaller pieces of the market are produced using other materials like ceramic, aluminum or enameled cast iron.
Why is Teflon so slippery?
PTFE is a polymer built of organic compounds.
In layman’s terms, that means there is carbon at the center of every molecule AND the molecules are arranged in a large repeating pattern. The structure of these molecules is what makes PTFE uniquely slippery.
As shown above, PTFE is basically a long chain of Carbon atoms that is surrounded by Fluorine. Fluorine is an incredibly electronegative element which causes it to attract electrons from Carbon. In PTFE, this makes for an incredibly strong bond between atoms that is highly resistant to breaking or combining with other molecules.
The equation for a single PTFE molecule is CF2. Individual molecules organize side-by-side into a long chain. In this chain, outward-facing Fluorine atoms repel almost all materials that come into close contact. This is what makes the surface of Teflon so incredibly slippery.
If Teflon is so slippery, how does it stick to a pan?
Teflon is physically fastened to the surface of a pan, sort of like velcro. There isn’t actually a chemical bond keeping the two stuck together.
A manufacturer will etch tiny abrasions in the surface of a pan by sandblasting or applying chemicals. Teflon is then baked into the cracks. If you can imagine each small abrasion as a tiny dovetail joint, it’s easy to understand why the Teflon doesn’t simply slide free.
What is the controversy?
Until recently, the PTFE used in cookware was manufactured using a man-made chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA is also known by the trade name C8. It was used to keep PTFE from clumping during production.
PFOA has been around since the 1940s, and there is significant evidence to show that it persists in the environment and our human bodies. This means the chemical doesn’t break down and can accumulate over time.
In the early 2000s, several studies were published suggesting that PFOA exposure leads to long-term health risks including possible links to testicular, kidney, thyroid, prostate, bladder and ovarian cancer.
The World Health Organization classifies PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” and the European Union considers it a Substance of Very High Concern.
The consensus of governments and scientific communities everywhere is that PFOA is nasty stuff, and unfortunately it’s found nearly everywhere after 70 years of widespread use.
In addition to impacting humans, several studies show that low level exposure to PFOA causes developmental problems and liver damage to animals. Recent research published in The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry also suggests that these materials are crossing the blood brain barrier of some mammals such as polar bears in Greenland.
How widespread are these materials?
For a substance that has only recently caught public attention, PFOA is incredibly widespread. It can be found at low levels in the soil and groundwater on every continent. It has been detected in human breast milk, babies blood and a variety of animal species.
In the US, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) runs a health and nutritional survey each year which examines a nationally representative sample of 5,000 people. Participants are located in counties across the country. When collections from the 1999 survey were analyzed, PFOA was found in every single participant sample.
There was also a shady corporate cover up.
It’s well documented that DuPont dumped thousands of tons of PFOA from their Teflon-production operations into public waterways and sludge ponds that seep into the groundwater. Corporate documents and private medical studies suggest that DuPont and 3M knew about the environmental and health impacts for decades, and allowed contamination to continue anyway.
In 2017, a US Court awarded a $671 million settlement to more than 3,500 plaintiffs who claimed they contracted cancers and other diseases from exposure to PFOA dumped by DuPont.
The New York Times published an excellent investigative piece about this shocking story. Focus Features also released a dramatic representation of events in the film Dark Waters. It runs 126 minutes and, as of this writing, is trending above 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Are there alternatives to PTFE?
News about the dangers of PFOA sent shockwaves through the non-stick cookware market, and several other industries. In response to consumer concern, brands like GreenPan led the way to create a new ceramic-based segment of the non-stick market. Products in this new category are often marketed as “green” and are manufactured without use of PTFE or PFOA materials.
The general consensus among market research groups like Grandview suggest that PTFE-coated pans still dominate global sales, but ceramic is catching up with the rise of kitchens that want to cook with safe materials.
What else has changed since the controversy?
PFOA materials used in manufacturing of PTFE have been eliminated from most supply chains. This change was driven by both consumer preference and regulatory pressure.
In 2006, the US Environmental Protection Agency invited major manufacturers to participate in a PFOA Stewardship Program. Participants like DuPont, 3M and others, committed to eliminate use of all PFOAs in manufacturing by 2015.
Although PFOAs are not manufactured in the US anymore, they can still be produced in some locations internationally and imported as part of products like carpet, leather, textiles, paper, rubber and plastics.
The Teflon brand spun-off from DuPont into a new company called Chemours in 2015. Many sources criticise the move, claiming that it was designed to avoid responsibility rather than to precipitate real change. Some publishers suggest that Chemours was purposely designed for bankruptcy, and in order to spin off environmental liability from DuPont. Consistent with that perspective, DuPont management has claimed that Chemours is responsible to accept liability for any PFOA lawsuits under terms of their separation agreement.
The Teflon brand has been manufactured without PFOA since 2013. GenX chemicals are now being used in place of PFOA for much PTFE production. The EPA has already registered GenX chemicals in, “surface water, groundwater, finished drinking water, rainwater, and air emissions in some areas.“
The EPA is drafting official toxicity assessments on the new GenX materials, but the process is rather slow.
Many US States like California and New Jersey have listed PFOA as a known toxin, and have begun to monitor and limit corporate contamination by this chemical within their borders. The United Nations Chemical Review Committee has recommended that PFOA be added to a banned-chemicals list that has been ratified by 150 countries.
Should I be concerned about Teflon?
According to the FDA and USDA, PTFE non-stick coatings are inert and will pass safely through a human body if swallowed.
The American Cancer Society writes there are no proven risks from eating food prepared in PTFE-coated cookware and that compared with other factors, non-stick cookware is not a significant source of PFOA-exposure. They say you might expect greater risks of exposure from other materials like ski wax, some fabrics, and carpeting that has been treated to be stain resistant.
There is some evidence to indicate that fumes from overheated PTFE can be fatal to parrots, and may cause flu-like symptoms in humans. This is called polymer fume fever and is known to occur when PTFE is heated to decomposition temperatures.
Decomposition temperature and rate may vary based on the composition of a particular resin and time of heat exposure. In most cases, no precautions are necessary at temperatures below 500 F. Your pan may be susceptible to unsafe temperatures with prolonged exposure to a high stovetop setting.
The Bigger Risk: Forever Chemicals
Teflon was an incredible and unlikely discovery. Its properties are unique from almost any other substance known to man and it has some really cool applications.
Social business leader James A. Pearson said that, “Our daily decisions touch the whole planet and have results that last for thousands of years. Every product you purchase today is a vote for that item to be produced in mass quantities.”
Ultimately, consumer preference has cast its vote for the mass production of PTFE. And companies behind mass production continue to leverage so-called “forever chemicals.”
Forever chemicals are man-made compounds commonly used in chemical manufacturing. PFOA is only one of about 4,000 such substances in use.
What makes them so problematic is the fact that these compounds are incredibly resistant to breaking down in the environment. They simply accumulate, potentially for millions of years.
Forever chemicals are hydrophobic, meaning they don’t bind to soil or decompose in the ground. And they are hydrophilic, meaning they tend to dissolve into groundwater which eventually gets inside us humans. Unfortunately, we don’t have a method to facilitate their removal.
A study by the Environmental Working Group shows that forever chemicals now contaminate public water systems in at least 49 US States. Federal data similarly suggests that 110 million Americans could be exposed to them through their water.
In some cases, the EPA has demanded that manufacturers replace public water systems with bottled water to quench the thirst of sickening populations within proximity to their PTFE manufacturing facilities.
Although PFOA was (mostly) phased out of cookware manufacturing, other forever chemicals have taken its place. DuPont incorporated a compound called GenX, suggesting it would provide a “safer” alternative to PFOA. Ten years later, the EPA says GenX is similarly toxic. Unfortunately, it’s already entered the public water supply in some areas.
In light of this news, some European countries are now forcing the removal of toxic GenX waste for disposal in the United States. The cycle of chemical development, public contamination, lawsuits, and regulation is vicious.
A Possible Path To Destroy Forever Chemicals
In an exciting development during the summer of 2020, chemical engineers at Rice University stumbled upon a possible treatment for forever chemicals like PFOA and GenX. Their work focused on degrading PFOA using air, light and a catalyst.
As part of small tests, the research team successfully used boron nitride to remove 99% of PFOA from a water sample in only four hours. Their work also delivered results when treating a GenX water solution.
It’s not yet clear if these developments will translate into real-world solutions, but it is likely that the findings will accelerate interest in photo-reactions that could be used to treat manufacturing byproducts and environmental waste.
How Can I Protect Myself?
PTFE may be relatively safe for use in your kitchen, but it is contributing to a more dangerous world.
Pick a different pan.
While there are many risks involved in the creation of nonstick pans, you can also find a lot of great alternatives. There is a reason why many of the best kitchens in the world don’t use PTFE-coated pans.
Learn to cook with a seasoned cast iron or carbon steel pan. You will find superior durability with either of these materials and, with a little practice, non-stick cooking works just fine. In some families, cast iron pans are treasured and passed down through generations.
Discover if there’s a serious contamination near you.
Check the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) drinking water map, to discover if there is a forever chemical contamination near you. I was surprised to learn that 3M reported both water and solid waste contamination within half-an-hour of my home. EWG provides excellent resources on what to do if there is a threat near you.
Learn about proposed legislative changes.
There are dozens of pieces of legislation related to PFOA and other Forever Chemicals currently being proposed in the US House and Senate. You can read the current proposals and learn more here.