DuPont says kitchen temperatures are not hot enough to release harmful fumes
Scientists have long known that fumes from overheated Teflon can cause health problems in industrial settings: People can contract a flu-like illness with fever, chills and shortness of breath that can last up to two days.
They, however, do not agree on whether kitchen pans coated with Teflon are a health concern.
DuPont, which invented the chemistry behind most nonstick cookware, said problems in industrial settings are irrelevant to cookware because kitchen temperatures are much lower. But some experts disagree.
Executives have said that the worldwide use of Teflon pans without widespread reports of health problems proves they pose no serious or long-lasting danger to cooks.
“In over 40 years of use and with billions of pots and pans sold using nonstick coating, DuPont is aware of one published incident of a pan left unattended which resulted in a case of polymer fume fever in an individual,” spokesman R. Clifton Webb said.
The Environmental Protection Agency has begun hearings to examine what toxic compounds Teflon-coated products can emit. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is monitoring the EPA hearings and will use the agency’s findings to decide whether to require a warning label on, or otherwise regulate, cookware coated with Teflon and similar nonstick coatings. And the Food and Drug Administration, which granted final approval to Teflon cookware in 1962, has said it will decide whether to reconsider the terms of that approval based on the findings.
This isn’t the first time questions have been raised about the health effects of Teflon-coated pans. Soon after nonstick pans were introduced in 1960, DuPont found itself defending the safety of Teflon pans as rumors of deaths in industrial settings circulated.
There have been at least 94 documented cases of polymer fume fever occurring in the workplace, including two deaths. Those incidents have made some scientists wonder whether polymer fume fever is more widespread than doctors realize and whether it can cause more serious and lasting health problems.
DuPont warns of hazards
DuPont warns about the hazards of polymer fume fever on its Web site.
“Low or medium heat is recommended for cookware with DuPont non-stick surfaces,” the warning says. Temperatures that will break down the coatings “can be reached if an empty pan is left on a hot burner or in the oven,” it says.
DuPont recommends against using Teflon cookware under broilers, and has rejected proposals to use it in such high-heat kitchen applications as drip pans for electric stovetops.
When it licenses Teflon to cookware makers, DuPont requires that the companies meet certain standards in manufacturing and use of the product that will be coated with Teflon. It mandates that temperatures on nonstick appliances, such as woks, not exceed 550 degrees Fahrenheit, for instance, but does not require that cookware makers attach warning labels to products coated with Teflon.
DuPont does warn against keeping pet birds near Teflon cookware in use, regardless of what heat is used.
Birds are especially vulnerable to fumes from heated Teflon because their respiratory systems are highly sensitive, according to Dr. Roger Wells, a senior veterinary pathologist at the University of New Hampshire. Fumes from the heated Teflon quickly kill the cells lining the birds’ airways, so they can’t get oxygen. They suffocate.
Kitchen fumes examined
Although birds can be affected, DuPont concluded 40 years ago that cooks would be safe from polymer fume fever as long as nonstick cookware was used normally.
Teflon coatings don’t begin to break down until they exceed 500 F and not significantly until 600 F to 660 F, DuPont said. Normal cooking temperatures, according to the company, do not exceed 500 F.
In an experiment that tested the effect of Teflon fumes on parakeets, Wells found that an empty Teflon-lined pan on a conventional electric stove can reach 752 F within eight minutes.
“People are negligent,” Wells said. “They misuse products. I always thought it should have a warning label.”
Whatever gases are killing birds also are being breathed by people in the kitchen, said David Ellis, a University of Toronto professor who has studied the gases emitted by overheated Teflon.
“Bird deaths at low temperatures says to me by inference there has to be something coming off the frying pan,” he said.
Looks like flu
DuPont rejects the idea that the fatal effect on birds implies any hazard for people breathing the fumes. Experience shows that people simply do not get polymer fume fever in their kitchens, the company said.
Since DuPont began making Teflon commercially in 1951, nearly all the 94 documented cases of polymer fume fever have occurred in industrial settings where large amounts of Teflon were heated beyond 700 F.
However, some researchers have said polymer fume fever may not be diagnosed because its symptoms are so easily mistaken for flu. D. Kenwin Harris, a medical officer with a British chemical company, noted the possibility in 1951, when he published the first account of polymer fume fever in the British medical journal The Lancet.
Scientists have since noted that there had been very few reports in the literature of polymer fume fever since Harris first identified the condition.
“The scarcity of such reports suggests either that polymer fume fever does not occur, or that physicians do not bother to report diagnosed cases or, more likely, that the diagnosis is being missed,” Dr. Norman Williams of Thomas Jefferson Medical College, in Philadelphia, and Dr. F. Kirk Smith, of Radio Corp. of America, wrote in a journal article in 1972.
High temperatures a danger
Independent researchers have concluded that Teflon heated to very high temperatures can cause serious lung damage and even death.
DuPont has said serious cases have no relationship to any exposure that can occur in a kitchen. Other scientists have said that such cases are extreme examples of the same kind of injuries to tissue that occur in polymer fume fever.
“Polymer fume fever should be regarded as a potentially serious disorder warranting careful evaluation and possibly treatment,” Williams concluded in a 1972 article.
Other scientists have linked more serious cases of polymer fume fever to pulmonary edema, in which the lungs fill with fluid. Two fatal cases occurred when Teflon was heated to 842 F.
Robert Rickard, director of DuPont’s Haskell Laboratory for Toxicology and Industrial Medicine, said lung damage can result from extended exposure to Teflon fumes at very high temperatures. But he said that the illness should not be called polymer fume fever and that it cannot occur in the kitchen.
Warnings an issue
Many cookware makers don’t pass on DuPont warnings about polymer fume fever or the risk to birds.
World Kitchen Inc. does. Since the mid-1980s, the Reston, Va.-based company has included a warning with its Revere Ware cookware that says: “Do not heat or leave an empty nonstick pan on a hot burner for more than three minutes. Fumes from a nonstick pan heated empty can be fatal to pet birds or cause temporary flu-like symptoms in humans.”
The Cookware Manufacturers Association said consumers bear the ultimate responsibility for using Teflon cookware properly. “I own a dog, and I know not to feed him chocolate, even though a Hershey bar doesn’t say “Don’t feed to Fido,’ ” said executive director Hugh Rushing.
The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental watchdog, earlier this year unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission to require warning labels on nonstick cookware.
The commission said it rejected the petition because it did not include enough information to support the group’s contention that consumers are endangered by the pans.
The commission conducted no original research to determine whether nonstick pans should bear a warning label.
“We were pleased to learn of the commission’s decision, and feel that it reinforces DuPont’s position that cookware made with Teflon nonstick coating is totally safe for consumer and commercial use,” Webb said in a statement.
Despite rejecting the consumer group’s petition, the commission said it is monitoring the EPA hearings to decide whether to require warning labels or some other regulatory action.
T E F L O N – C 8
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