Study Warns of Health Risk From Nonstick Cookware

By J.R. Pegg

May 16, 2003 (ENS) - An environmental research organization is urging the federal government to put warning labels on cookware coated with Teflon and similar nonstick coatings.

A new study released Thursday by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) finds that this cookware more quickly reaches temperatures that produce toxic particles and fumes than chemical giant and Teflon manufacturer DuPont has previously admitted.

EWG tested coated pans and determined that in two to five minutes on a typical household stove, the pans reach temperatures that produce toxins that Dupont has acknowledged kill hundreds of pet birds each year and cause the flu like "polymer fever" in humans.

"Our simple test showed DuPont is wrong when they tell customers the pans won't degrade except under extreme misuse," said Dr. Jennifer Klein, a chemist with EWG. "Actually, the pans started emitting toxic particles and chemicals quite quickly at temperatures within normal use on a typical stovetop."

The study's findings prompted EWG to send a petition Thursday to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)asking the federal safety board to label the coated cookware with a warning about dangers to pet birds and possible human health effects.

The petition calls on CPSC to "require that all cookware and heated appliances bearing polytetrafluoroethylene nonstick coatings, including Teflon coatings, cary a label warning of the acute hazard the coating poses to pet birds and the potential health risks to humans." pan

The study by Environmental Working Group warns of health risks from common use of nonstick pans. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy
There have been no studies on the long term effects of Teflon and similar coatings to humans, but DuPont has acknowledged that pans heated to some 460 degrees Fahrenheit release toxic particles that can kill birds.

There is ample evidence that this is the case in EWG's report "Canaries in the Kitchen," which details how birds can die from inhaling fumes and particles emitted from Teflon coated products.

Studies by DuPont show that humans may experience "polymer fume fever" when Teflon is heated to 662 degrees Fahrenheit.

The company contends that pans heated under 500 degrees have no risks to humans because the coating stays intact at this temperature and company officials say they do not believe consumers often heat pans above this temperature.

EWG's findings strongly dispute this as its tests show that cookware exceeds these temperatures and turns toxic through the common act of preheating a pan, on a burner set on high.

"Not only did we reach normal cooking temperatures in very short times, but what American adult with a kitchen has not left a pan on once or twice and forgotten about it?," asked Jane Houlihan, EWG's vice president for research. "It is hard to follow what DuPont is thinking when they say the pans don't off-gas toxic chemicals under 'normal' use."

In its tests, EWG found that a generic nonstick frying pan preheated on a conventional, electric stovetop burner reached 736 degrees Fahrenheit in three minutes and 20 seconds - a Teflon pan reached 721 degrees Fahrenheit in five minutes under the same conditions.

EWG's study determined that at 680 degrees Fahrenheit, Teflon pans release at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, two global pollutants, and MFA, a chemical lethal to humans at low doses.

The long term human health effects from these toxins have not been studied, but there is increasing concern about chemical ingredients in Teflon, in particular ammonium perfluorooctane (PFOA), a chemical currently being reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. parrots

In one year, a Chicago veterinarian documented 296 bird deaths in 105 cases involving non stick cookware. (Photo courtesy Stanford University)
A draft risk assessment on PFOA found evidence of high developmental and reproductive health risks to humans, in particular to children and women of childbearing age.

DuPont's public statements about the possible health risks from PFOA - referred to by the company as "C8" - have been questioned. The company is under federal investigation for the possibly illegal withholding of key health studies regarding C8 and was sanctioned by a West Virginia court three weeks ago because a company scientist destroyed evidence from health research on the chemical.

The government has not assessed the safety of nonstick cookware, most of which does not carry a warning label.

EWG recommends that bird owners completely avoid cookware and heated appliances with nonstick coatings, opting instead to use stainless steel or cast iron. The organization says neither of these materials offgas persistent pollutants that kill birds.

The EWG report on the health risks to birds and humans from nonstick pans can be found here.