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Dangers of teflon

Carry a Big Non-Stick

Concerned about using Teflon cookware? You’re not alone. Here’s a question from an HSI member named Sylvia who is understandably cautious:

“I have read about the dangers of Teflon in your newsletter. Now Dupont has a new improved nonstick system called Autograph 2, supposedly their best product. Can anyone advise if this product is safer than Teflon?

Autograph 2 is touted to be “restaurant-tested by professional chefs.” I’m not exactly sure what that’s supposed to mean. After all, what is a “restaurant test”?

The key feature of Autograph 2 appears to be durability, which is something many Teflon-coated pans lack. If you’re like me, somewhere along the line you’ve probably owned a frying pan that started to produce flakes of Teflon coating after prolonged use. You don’t have to read any studies to suspect that Teflon flakes in your food are probably not good for you.

As for safety, try as I might I couldn’t find any safety information about Autograph 2. But here’s a question that might provide a good place to start checking the safety of the new non-stick: Does A2 contain perfluorooctanoic acid?

The answer to that question would be revealing, because this chemical compound – known as PFOA and long suspected to be an unhealthy component of Teflon – was recently singled out as something you probably wouldn’t want to have come in contact with the food you eat.

Likely suspect

For some time now the scientific advisory panel of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has regarded PFOA as a possible carcinogen. Last week the panel made headlines when a draft report was posted on the EPA web site upgrading PFOA (or downgrading, depending on how you see it) to a “likely carcinogen.”

In addition to Teflon, PFOA is also used to create stain-resistant surfaces for carpets and fabrics. Scientists don’t know exactly how PFOA makes its way into our blood. And as yet, there’s no conclusive proof that the compound even harms humans. But based on studies in which PFOA triggered different types of tumors in mice and rats, the advisory panel decided to make consumers more cautious about using products that contain PFOA.

A spokesperson for DuPont – the company that makes PFOA and Teflon – told the Washington Post last week that toxicology studies show that the chemical compound is not a health risk to humans.

So when it comes to the carcinogenic issue, this is a typical “regulatory agency said”/”corporate giant said” situation. Time will tell who’s correct.

Turn down the heat and call me in the morning

And then there’s the matter of Teflon “flu.”

About a year and a half ago I caught an airing of ABC’s 20/20 in which representatives from an organization called the Environmental Working Group demonstrated how a Teflon-coated pan can easily reach a temperature of 500 degrees while cooking bacon. At that temperature, they claim that ultrafine particles may be released from the pan. And at around 680 degrees the pan will begin to emit toxic gases. When inhaled, the gases may cause a reaction with symptoms that are typical of the flu, including a rise in body temperature, chills, headache, etc.

DuPont’s vice president of research and development, Uma Chowdhry, was interviewed by 20/20, and when asked about the Teflon flu she admitted that heated Teflon does release fumes which can cause a “flu-like symptom, which is reversible.”

Reversible! Well that’s good news! It’s so much more appealing than an irreversible flu-like symptom.

Hot pan, cold oil

Every Friday I turn the e-Alert over to HSI members who post comments on the Healthier Talk community forums. Last February I featured a very informative conversation about alternatives to Teflon cookware. Here are a few of their remarks

A member named R.B. wrote: “I bought a very expensive frypan with glass lid to avoid the aluminum dangers and the mess of stainless steel sticking. It is made of titanium and can be used on extremely high heat without oils and will never warp or be damaged. Nothing sticks to it at all.”

Stainless steel is another alternative, although stainless steel often contains nickel, which is toxic. But a member named M.K. offered this clever tip for easily gauging nickel content: “There is a simple test to determine if your stainless – or the stainless you wish to purchase – is okay or not. If a magnet sticks to your pot/pan – you are safe. If it does not, there is too much nickel.”

Issues of safety aside, if you want to keep food from sticking to a cooking surface, the cooking technique may be more important than the material the surface is made of. Here’s some professional advice from a member named Howard: “I’ve worked in several professional kitchens in the past, and I have NEVER seen a ‘Teflon’ or other non-stick pan in the building. Pro kitchens are all to do with SPEED. You need pans that transfer heat quickly, are light, and easy to clean. This means Aluminum. Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but if you eat out often, you are eating food cooked in aluminum pans.

“If you want your pans, (whatever their base metal) to be non-stick, follow the old chef’s maxim: Hot Pan, Cold Oil, Foods Don’t Stick! Amateur cooks put a cold pan on the stove, add the fat to the pan, and turn on the heat. This is a GUARANTEE that whatever protein or carb that you add to that pan after it reaches temp, will stick like super-glue. If you want to make your pans non-stick, do this: PRE-HEAT the pan, and then add the oil/fat. Wait for a tell-tale wisp of smoke from the pan before adding your ingredients for cooking. This is the pan’s method of telling you that it is ‘ready’ to cook.”

Of course, if history is any indicator, look for your Teflon flu alert, followed by a life-saving vaccine, to be released any day now.

Sources:
“Chemical Compound in DuPont’s Teflon a Likely Carcinogen” Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, 6/29/05, washingtonpost.com



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