Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers


20 May 2003

Teflon pans can create a sticky situation when overheated
By Elizabeth Weise

Related story in USA Today

An environmental group has asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to require warnings on non-stick cookware informing consumers of the hazards they can pose to pet birds, and potentially humans, when overheated.

[PDF copy of EWG petition]

Veterinarians have long known that overheating non-stick cookware produces toxins that can kill birds. The syndrome is so well documented that it is included in the standard veterinary text on the subject, Avian Medicine: Principles and Applications.

"It's almost like a bomb blast — the birds that are further away from the kitchen will show fewer signs, while the birds closer will die," says Darrel Styles, an avian veterinarian at Texas A&M University. Exposure to the fumes causes the birds' lungs to fill with fluid and can cause death within minutes, Styles says.

The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group would like that knowledge to be more widespread, especially because in people, breathing such fumes results in what's known as "polymer fume fever," a short illness that mimics the flu with fever, chills, shivering, chest discomfort, cough and sore throat.

Non-stick pans have never been meant for high-heat cooking, as the instructions on any pan label will show.

"We recommend cooking using coated non-stick cookware at low to medium heat," says Dupont's Rich Angiullo. "We know (our product) can withstand temperatures up to 500 F, well above any of the recommended temperatures for frying or baking."

But recommendations and reality don't always coincide, says Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook. "We're still searching for the person who has never left a pan on a stove top and had it get real hot."

In fact, a 1982 paper published in the American Journal of Veterinary Research by R. E. Wells of Michigan State University finds that non-stick cookware begins to break down at 536 degrees.

"Such temperatures are generally not reached in routine kitchen use, but can be reached in a few minutes when such cookware, if dry, were inadvertently exposed to domestic heat sources," Wells wrote.

Engineers with Underwriters Laboratories say that all UL-certified electric ranges should bring a pan to 475 degrees when the knob is turned to two-thirds high, and that maximum heat would probably exceed 600-650 degrees.

A test done last week by the Environmental Working Group found that a cold non-stick pan placed on a cold burner that was then turned on high reached 736 degrees in three minutes and 20 seconds.





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