JP Saleeby, MD
So imagine one morning you pull out your favorite non-stick frying pan, heat up the stovetop, crack open a few eggs and throw on a couple of strips of bacon. While this is not the diet I usually recommend for my patients, despite this fact, something strange happens. Before the food even touches your mouth, you become ill. Acutely ill with headache, nausea, a cough, body aches, chills and even a fever, very similar to the flu. Funny, it could not have been the food, so what then? Well, actually it is a phenomenon known since the 1950’s as polymer fume fever. Polymer fume fever also know as Teflon Fever, is caused by off-gassing of some 15 different components of this non-stick compound, a couple of which are known carcinogens. Inhalation seems to be the only way these fumes cause illness. Ingesting food where contact was made with Teflon does not have the same effect.
DuPont the manufacturer of Teflon® has for decades known of the flu-like illness resulting from inhalation of fumes from Teflon coated kitchenware. The company as well as the FDA and private researchers have conducted studies into the short term health risks. Interestingly enough, no long-term studies have ever been performed. DuPont contends to this day that while this phenomenon occurs, there are no long-term health risks. The FDA has approved this non-stick material as safe for a “food contact surface”, but the jury is still out in my opinion on it safety concerns regarding fuming at just moderate temperatures. The Environmental Working Group (an industry watchdog) reported in a study released in the middle of 2003, that cookware coated with Teflon-like coatings could reach 700 degrees Fahrenheit in 3-5 minutes, releasing toxic gases and chemicals. While birds have died with exposures from such fumes produced at much lower temperatures (such as 464oF), other animals don’t make such good research subjects. Birds and humans seem to be very sensitive, but dogs, mice and other lab animals tend not to be stricken as badly by the gases. Remember in the early days of mining a canary was used by miners as an early warning to gaseous hazards in the underground shafts.
The family of substances called perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, provides the world with some of its most popular consumer products. These products include Teflon, Stainmaster and Scotchgard repellants. These PFCs are employed in almost all industry segments, including the aerospace, automotive, building/construction, chemical processing, electrical and electronics, semiconductor, and carpet and textile industries. They are even used in the keep-your-feet-dry Gore-Tex hiking boots. A particular PFC called C8 (ammonium perfluorooctanoate) is used to make Teflon also known as polytetrafluoroethylene, a favorite in the modern kitchen. This slippery substance was discovered by sheer accident in 1938 by Dr. Roy Plunkett at the DuPont research laboratories. He discovered a powder residue after leaving the valve open overnight on a bottle of Freon.
Workers at the DuPont manufacturing plant in West Virginia are forced to use respirators by OSHA when working with these substances. Research has also pointed out that smokers are even more susceptible to Teflon Flu, because microparticles, which land on their hands, wind up imbedded in the cigarettes. As a cigarette is smoked, fluorocarbons are then pyrolyzed (burned), and the toxic fumes are inhaled with the cigarette smoke. The most common known products of this pyrolysis include inorganic fluoride, hydrogen fluoride, carbonyl fluoride, and perfluoropropane and they are pretty toxic when inhaled, this according to a 1987 CDC study. DuPont scientists, in their own experiments, found that smoking a cigarette laced with a spec of Teflon about the size of the head of a pin was equivalent to breathing Teflon fumes at high concentrations for a full workday. This exceeds the exposure levels that caused polymer fume fever in DuPont’s other human studies. Those exposed in this manner suffered the worst symptoms.Last year the EPA took action to monitor and collect data on the health concerns of PFCs under section 4 of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Once the data is collected and analyzed, a decision will be made by this federal agency as to the continuation of manufacture and use of these compounds in this country. Currently, there is no ban on use of these products in society. The EPA does warn the public to exert vigilance when using Teflon to reduce inhalation exposure.
While I find Teflon almost indispensable in my daily life and ultimately hard to avoid, since it is found in so many things, I will be vigilant with my use from now on. Using a very well ventilated environment (and venting the fumes away from me and my family members) when cooking on these treated pans for one thing. I will also be looking to replace these pots and pans soon to play it safe. © 2004