Sticky Woes of Teflon
© Robert Anderson PhD
Originally published in Organic New Zealand, November/December 2005, Vol. 64 No. 6
as “Telflon – Watch it near pets, babies and other people you love.”
Like many technical innovations, Teflon non-stick cookware caught on in a big way, but, after 50 years of use, evidence is mounting that Teflon's major ingredient, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), “sticks” in our environment indefinitely – and comes with an array of serious worries. ONZ's resident chemist, Dr Robert Anderson, details the concerns.
Some of the first warnings of the dangers came from the death of pet birds. Like the old coal miner’s canary, birds are sensitive to many dangers that affect human beings. Birds can drop dead when they remain in a room where a non-stick pan is being heated.[i] Fumes released by heated non-stick coatings cause birds' lungs to haemorrhage and fill with fluid and fumes can also affect humans with “polymer fume fever” – easily mistaken for flu. The temperatures at which release of fumes can occur is surprisingly low.
Five pet cockatiels[ii]reportedly died within 30 minutes of exposure to fumes from an overheated frying pan coated with “non-stick” PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene). Within an hour, the owner also developed symptoms of “polymer fume fever.” Fortunately, he recovered over 24 hours. Clinical signs and post mortem lesions of the cockatiels are described and reference is made to the unusual susceptibility of parakeets to the pyrolysis products of frying pans coated with PTFE.[iii]
Deaths related to non-stick coatings are not restricted to pet birds in the home, either. After moving 2400 broiler chickens to a research warehouse at University of Columbia-Missouri, veterinarians noticed that substantial numbers of birds were dying. After investigating the possibility of gas pollutants, scientists traced the deaths to light bulb ‘heat lamps’ coated with the Teflon.[iv]
Another concern is that these perfluorochemicals (PFCs) appear to pass into the placenta and into a mother's breast milk. Research by DuPont in 1981 showed that traces of these chemicals were found in the unborn child of a pregnant woman.[v]
Teflon-coated non-stick cooking and baking utensils are still freely available in New Zealand and sales remain high. What consumers are unaware of is that many dubious chemicals are released from heating these utensils. When non-stick pans were heated, chemicals were measured in the air that were considered highly toxic by independent scientists researching this area.[vi]
The latest findings of scientists from the US Environmental Working Group (EWG) offer grave warnings; for example, “A flood of disturbing scientific findings since the late 1990s has abruptly elevated PFCs to the rogues gallery of highly toxic, extraordinarily persistent chemicals that pervasively contaminate human blood and wildlife the world over. As more studies pour in, PFCs seem destined to supplant DDT, PCBs, dioxin and other chemicals as the most notorious, global chemical contaminants ever produced. Government scientists are especially concerned because, unlike any other toxic chemicals, the most pervasive and toxic members of the PFC family never degrade in the environment.”[vii]
This is serious stuff and may well point to the fact that the manufacturer, DuPont, did not test for the dangers of their product. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has initiated a review of the potential health risks and exposure routes of PFOA and its most commonly used salts, including ammonium perfluorooctanoate (commonly referred to as C8), which is used in Teflon production. This group of fluorine-containing chemicals are known as fluoropolymers. Unfortunately, they have a myriad of uses besides non-stick cookware.
Fluoropolymers impart valuable properties, including fire-resistance and oil-, stain-, grease-, and water-repellency. As well as non-stick surfaces on cookware, they are used in making waterproof inner linings for clothing. They are employed in hundreds of other uses in almost all industry sectors, including the aerospace, automotive, building/construction, electrical and textile industries. Telomers are a group of similar fluorocarbon chemicals used as surfactants and as surface-treatment chemicals in many products, including personal care and cleaning products; and oil- and water-repellent coatings on carpet, textiles, and paper. Thus we are exposed to these products at many levels.

Non-stick in the frying pan
DuPont must have been aware of these hazards. When internal company documents became public, concerns arose over C8's potential health hazards. Three thousand residents, living in the vicinity of DuPont's Washington plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, filed a class action lawsuit in 2004. They charged that DuPont knowingly discharged C8 into local drinking-water supplies. A study, released by the 3M Company (DuPont's primary C8 supplier), in 2001 also found that PFOA was present in the blood of 96 percent of 598 children tested in 23 states.[viii] Birds also died in DuPont laboratory Teflon-heating experiments at temperatures as low as 280 oC.[ix] One class of chemical that can be released, hydrogen fluoride, is a particularly offensive chemical[x]
Despite Teflon-maker DuPont's long-standing claim that there are “no known health effects” associated with its Teflon chemical PFOA, in January of this year the company announced that in a recently-completed worker study it found that PFOA exposures among Teflon plant workers were correlated with a ten percent increase in cholesterol.[xi] This is the fourth in a string of studies conducted since 1994 pointing to excess risks for stroke and heart attack among workers exposed to the Teflon chemicals.
However, the DuPont document that raised the most concern dates back to 1981. A study, conducted by 3M, found birth defects in rats exposed to C8. The study also reported the results of pregnancies in seven Dupont workers exposed to C8. Out of the seven, two of the women delivered babies with birth defects, one with eye and tear-duct defects and another with nostril and eye defects. DuPont did not report this finding of a potential human hazard from C8 exposure. Although many areas in the world remain untested, in the US, Northern Europe and China PFCs have been detected in human blood. PFOS has even been detected in the blood of people from rural China and PFOA has been detected in school-age children throughout America. Because of such findings, the EPA announced initial steps to regulate the chemical in April 2003. Unfortunately, these regulations have not yet filtered through to New Zealand and many of these products are still easily available.
In the last six years, the multi-billion dollar perfluorochemical (PFC) industry, behind such world-famous brands as Teflon, Stainmaster and Scotchgard, has emerged as a regulatory priority for the EPA. The PFC family is characterized by chains of carbon atoms of varying lengths to which fluorine atoms are strongly bonded. This yields basically indestructible chemicals that until recently were thought to be biologically inert. The evidence, like that of PCB’s, is proving all too terribly wrong.
One of the Western world’s best-known brand names, 3M's Scotchgard coatings, is also a culprit in the environmental PFOS contamination scenario. Consumers recognize this product as the magical substance that repels water and stains from clothes, carpets and upholstered furniture. What consumers are not aware of is that Scotchgard has been used for years in the wrappings for a vast list of packaged and fast foods. Scotchgard ingredients belong to the family of chemicals that degrade to form a chemical called perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). These are essentially fluorocarbons, related to CFCs, which are now banned as ozone depleters. The 3M company has manufactured PFOS commercially since 1948 and announced in a vague, one-page press release in May 2000, that it would phase itself out of the PFOS market by the end of 2002 because of concerns that the chemical has been “detected broadly at extremely low levels in the environment and in people.”
In the 50 years from the start of commercial production to this phase-out announcement, millions of kilograms of PFOS chemicals have entered the global environment. They now contaminate the blood of people and wildlife to an astonishing extent. In 1997, 3M found PFOS in supposedly clean samples from blood banks all over the world. PFOS can be found in children and has been detected in the blood of humans on three continents. PFCs have also been detected in wildlife in three of four continents tested, in 14 of 14 countries tested, in 76 of the 98 species tested, from polar bears in Alaska to Albatrosses in the wildlife refuge in Midway Atoll[xii]. This is a sad inventory indeed and a poor reflection of corporate environmental care.
Research still continues, but among other health effects of PFOS it is known to damage the liver and to generate severe birth defects in lab animals. The EPA has noted that PFOS chemicals form “persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree.” The EPA now holds over 1,000 documents on Scotchgard, a total of 29,000 pages of material that clearly shows that 3M knew its products were in the blood of the general population as early as 1976. The company also detected PFOS in their own plant workers as early as 1979. In other words, the company waited more than 20 years before agreeing, under threat of regulatory action by EPA, to remove this health hazard from the marketplace. While 3M aggressively marketed Scotchgard directly to consumers for decades, the company did nothing to inform its customers that the chemical in its product was universally contaminating the global population, and that it will persist in our blood for years to come.
A report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG)[xiii]scientists on PFCs, provides the first comprehensive review ever published of the pollution and health risks posed by PFCs, with special reference to PFOA. It is based on a review of 50,000 pages of regulatory studies and government documents obtained from the EPA, and internal documents from DuPont and 3M divulged in ongoing litigation. It is an examination of independent studies and a growing body of reports on the toxicity and environmental pollution of PFCs. This report also describes how corporations like 3M and DuPont could get away with permanently contaminating the planet for decades assuring the customers that they practice “responsible care” with respect to public health and the environment.[xiv] Dupont, Scotchgard et al do not support or endorse this report.
A news report from Reuters,[xv]in May 2005 said a federal grand jury has slapped Dupont with a subpoena - via a request from the US Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section - regarding the use of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the chemical used to make Teflon non-stick coatings. What is more surprising is that the subpoena comes only a month after Dupont agreed to a settlement with the EPA that it failed to disclose health safety information about PFOA for 20 years. Perhaps justice takes time.
My advice? Stay clear of pans and utensils that boast the Teflon non-stick labels and, if possible, avoid having fabrics sprayed with fluoro-repellent chemicals.
Products containing PFC
In an effort to find out just how widely PFCs are used in consumer products, EWG published the
following list on their website.' It provides a sampling of available products containing Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster or other PFCs. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it demonstrates the huge coverage of the market for PFC applications.


Product Type
Number of identified Products
Sporting and Outdoor Gear
Personal Care Products
Carpet and furniture treatment products
Pet supplies
Fashion accessories
Miscellaneous household products
Automotive products
Carpet and furniture cleaning products
Computer Accessories
Gardening products
Music Supplies
Medical Supplies
Source: Environmental Working Group (

Robert Anderson BSc (Hons), PhD (4 February 1942 to 5 December 2008)

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[i] “Canaries in the Kitchen”
[ii] Nymphicus hollandicus.
[iii] Blandford TB, Seamon PJ, Hughes R, Pattison M, Wilderspin MP. 1975. A case of polytetrafluoroethylene poisoning in cockatiels accompanied by polymer fume fever in the owner. Vet Rec 1975 Feb 22;96(8):175-8.
[iv] Boucher M, Ehmler TJ, Bermudez AJ. 2000. Polytetrafluoroethylene gas intoxication in broiler chickens. Avian Dis 2000 Apr-Jun;44(2):449-53.
[vi] Ellis DA, Mabury SA, Martin JW, Muir DC. 2001. Thermolysis of fluoropolymers as a potential source of halogenated organic acids in the environment. Nature 2001 Jul 19;412(6844):321-4.
[vii] Environmental Working Group
[viii] Lauren Sucher, EWG, (202) 939-9141 Showdown for DuPont: EPA Starts Review of Teflon Chemical Now in Human Blood Company’s Public Stance Belies Decades-long Strategy to Keep Critical Information from EPA and The Public.
[ix] Waritz, RS. 1975. An industrial approach to evaluation of pyrolysis and combustion hazards. Environ Health Perspect 11: 197-202
[x] Scheel, LD, Lane, WC and Coleman, WE, 1968. The toxicity of polytetrafluoroethylene pyrolysis products including carbonyl fluoride and a reaction product, silicon tetrafluoride. American Ind Hyg Assoc Journal 29(1): 41-8
[xi] DuPont Study Finds Link Between Teflon Contaminant and Elevated Cholesterol.
[xiii] PFOA and other PFCs come from common products in every home.
[xv] DuPont sued in Teflon class action case 2005 19:26:13 GMT