That Teflon causes cancer thing

What did I cook this in?

Sweet and Sour Chicken closeup

Sweet & Sour Chicken closeup
Sunnyvale, California

Panasonic DMC-LX1
1/30sec @ f/2.8, iso 200, 6.3mm (28mm)

From: 11/24/05 11:24 AM

Yesterday at work, I had a long discussion on whether or not Teflon causes cancer. The paranoia is best outlined in articles such as this. (Nora, stick to romantic comedies, because I’m going to rip you a new asshole by the time I’m done with this article.)

Basically I decided to “call bullshit” based on what little I remembered of my college organic chemistry class (misspent pre-med youth), I couldn’t see how anything in the body could react with polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon® = DuPont’s trademark of PTFE) or keep it from passing right through our system.

When I got home something they mentioned rang a bell. Almost a year ago there was something about how some teflon-like lining of popcorn bags were being pulled—something about how the oils in popcorn butter leach the stuff out.

Uh-oh! Better do some research.

[More than what you want to know about non-stick cookware after the jump]

Here was the relevant article. Despite the sensationalist headline, it isn’t Teflon (PTFE) that is being pulled but perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA used in such large quantities in the manufacture of Teflon and in Teflon-like plastic linings, that trace amounts have been found in people, fish, what-have-you.

It’s toxic in large doses. Like many things, some lab mice died of cancer. People who worked at Dupont got fucked. No surprise there. If you work at a chemical company you’re bound to get fucked in ways nobody has figured out—for example read the blasé manner the author notes the deterioration of factory workers in The Case of the Frozen Addicts.

Solution: Companies will voluntarily eliminate the release of PFOE into the environment by 2015.

My guess is your exposure to PFOA is going to be mostly due to DuPont dumping the shit into the environment than in ruined nonstick cookware. I’d be more worried about the aluminum surface that sometimes peeks through when my cookware is dying.

I’m not too sure if PFOA is a byproduct of PTFE decay. This sounds unlikely. (Spoiler: Here is Dupont’s take.)

What about my dead exotic bird?

I was reading this interesting comment thread from Cooking For Engineers and I noticed this comment:

Regarding the health concerns about teflon, I can personally attest to its byproduct fumes being toxic as it nearly killed my African Grey parrot. I was heating a pot of water, got distracted and the water evaporated which caused the teflon coating to get hot. I myself noticed my throat feeling acrid, but the poor bird was puffed up, breathing with great difficulty and listing. He was so ill, he didn’t mind me putting my hands around him to place him in his carrier for an emergency trip to the vet. My dear parrot survived, and fortunately being an engineer I could afford the three days of vet services that totaled over $700.

I want to smack the person upside the head. What are you doing with a tropical bird in your kitchen. You just blew like 100x past the smoke point of every oil or fat you ever could have put in that pan. You a sadist or something? Here is the low down from Dupont. And these people call themselves engineers.

(Please someone name something that doesn’t mess with an exotic tropical bird’s respiratory system when smoked.)

What about the Teflon decay?

Most people note that their cookware instructions say they are not supposed to heat their non-stick cookware past “medium” on their stove and immediately theorize that the Teflon coat will create a carcinogenic gas when heated past 500ºF. This is no different than people reading “May contain sulfites” on wine bottles and being convinced that sulfites are the cause of their headaches. (Argh! Read the symptoms of food allergies!)

What is going on at that temperature is that Teflon is turning from a solid to a liquid. To understand why this is bad (for the cookware, not for you), we have to answer this question that always bugged me.

If teflon is so slippery, how the hell does it stick to the pan?

The answer is it’s baked into the surface of the pan. The best analogies I heard are ice cubes in the tray or how velcro works. Ice is pretty darn slippery but I always have a heck of a time getting them out of those plastic trays. Why? Because water expands as it freezes and lodges itself good and tight in the tray by the time it turns solid. Similarly velcro is physically bonded together because the hooks get caught on the loops on the other side.

So it is with Teflon.

Teflon doesn’t react to pretty much anything and it doesn’t stick to anything… except itself. That last part is self-evident when you buy a roll of plumbers tape and is how the process of coating pans with teflon gets it to ”stick” to the pan—it doesn’t. It sticks to itself and gets lodged into the microscopic shapes on the surface of the pan good and tight. These microscopic surfaces come from an acid wash treatment.

When you heat a pan too high, the coat begins to decay and the surface will wear quickly.

Yeah, but the life of my pan is teh suck

Yes, the nylon tools thing. I hate that.

In the old days an old favorite of mine, Circulon1 had raised circles so that your tools (nylon or otherwise) couldn’t scratch away the entire nonstick surface. Now this is taken to a new level:

New high-end nonstick cookware has molten stainless steel blasted blasted onto the surface to roughen it up. The idea is the PTFE falls into those valleys and you have a microscopic version of Circulon. The nonstick surface magically lasts a heck of a lot longer than before, but it still starts to decay at high temperatures and can be scratched off if you’re dedicated.

I think All-Clad Excalibur is a popular example of this. People are always telling me I should buy All-Clad which is a sure reason that I never do: I own a Mac! I shoot Nikon. Why the hell would you think I’d buy All-Clad?

Another option is ScanPan which uses Titanium-Ceramic beading instead of stainless steel.

What about SilverStone®?

Near as I can figure SilverStone is a trademark for a Dupont process that bakes in three layers of Teflon onto the surface. (Teflon is always baked in three layers.) There is some implication that it isn’t exactly PTFE or just PTFE. In any case, it’s supposed to be more durable.

If anyone can figure out what SilverStone really is, comment below.

What about Swiss Diamond?

In people’s search for non-teflon cookware, a lot of people recommend Swiss Diamond. Just go back and reread that Cooking for Engineers thread above if you don’t believe me.

If you read Swiss Diamond website closely, you will see that they use Teflon (well technically they’re too cheap to pay for the trademark from Dupont so it’s PTFE which is where they get away with saying “we don’t use Teflon®”) for the reason I mentioned above. Only instead of blasting the surface with a molten metal, they’re using diamonds via deposition.

I have no idea why—maybe it sounds cool. Ignore the crap they say about conductance: there is no way a microscopic layer of diamond dust is going to transport much heat anywhere—sort of like that copper foil I had on the bottom of my old T-fal pans—marketing BS, but I digress!

My solution

I’m low maintenance and really hard on nearly everything I own. Telling me to not raise my stove past medium is hard for me to follow. My stove’s dial goes to 11, dammit! I also spend way too much time thinking about any purchase I make (isn’t that obvious from reading this blog)?

The easiest and cheapest solution is to use a seasoned cast-iron pan from Lodge. Good deal, but you have to re-season is you cook at too high a temperature and burn off the oils. I own a Lodge griddle, a Lodge frypan, and a Staub La Cocotte, so I’m not above using cast iron.

(By the way, I’m sick of Nora and others raving about Le Creuset frypans. One of these costs $90. A Lodge Logic Skillet costs $16!2 Save Le Creuset for enameled dutch ovens. Personally for those, I got a Staub (that contrarian in me peeks on through), but if you find a deal like this one, I’ll forgive you.)

For a general purpose non-stick frypan I have a Sitram Cybernox2:

Sitram Cybernox (and some chicken)

Sitram Cybernox (and some chicken)
Sunnyvale, California

Panasonic DMC-LX1
1/15sec @ f/2.8, iso 200, 6.3mm (28mm)

They give you steel wool to clean the surface. Sweet! The crappy thing is it’s nowhere near as non-stick as a new teflon pan. Stuff sticks, but it’s trivial to clean. Short of nanotubes, you’re not going to get any more non-stick than teflon so I deal.

It also works with induction burners, can withstand being put in the oven or the dishwasher (or so I’ve read), has a 7mm thick aluminum core, and a mirror polish that resists scratching.

It’ll also cost you a heck of a lot more than a good non-stick pan with a aluminum disc bottom. That’s because it’s Sitram which means it’s professional French cookware. Surprisingly though, it won’t cost you any more than All-Clad (unless you’re getting those crazy promo pans you see from time to time—an insanely good deal). But I digress into my highly-opinionated biases.

A little hurt that I’m peeing on your favorite cookware? Hey, you should see me bitch about Microsoft and Canon. 😀

1 I blame Yan!
2 Not convinced? Here is another example. Apartment Therapy recommends the Le Creuset Reversible Grill & Griddle for $130. My Lodge Pro Logic Griddle cost me $38—and that’s for the expensive one! Lodge isn’t perfect: I think their enameled cookware costs more than a Le Creuset.

13 thoughts on “That Teflon causes cancer thing

  1. I have All-Clad pans (call me a joiner, but they’re also almost 10 years old). For non-stick though, I buy the cheapest (or next to cheapest) non-stick general utility/multipurpose wok/frypan at my local asian grocer. The thing costs me about $7, and I use it hard till it dies (I try not to accelerate this by mainly using wood/nylon/silicon tools). The average lifespan seems to be about 1-2 years of hard daily usage. At the price point in question the value can’t be beat. When I scratch it enough that it stops being non-stick (or if I scorch the pan like the bird-owning engine-eer — which I did do once), I toss it andbuy another. I can keep two or three on the rack for under $20 and never be short a pan.

    P.S. Who the fuck owns exotic birds anyway? A Grey Parrot lives 50-75 years. What happens when you get old or sick. Those animals belong in the wild (or a preserve/zoo), not in private hands to be inherited by your children or grandchildren when you croak.

  2. George,

    Great points!

    All-Clad pans are well-made—certainly a lot better than the Circulon, T-Fal, etc. that I mention. Also, if you can get them on a “Try-Me” deal the price is hard to beat. Heck, Costco probably sells a n-piece set set if you’re into building a kitchen that way.

    But if I am going to Sur La Table or the department store to just pick a specific one up—for the same price I can get the same pot or pan from Sitram Catering, Deymeyere Apollo, etc. for a small amount more I can buy stainless-lined all-copper cookware; if it’s nonstick then I can get a Scanpan, Swiss Diamond or a Sitram Cybernox.

    I should have mentioned the Shimano approach to non-stick: buy a cheap Teflon pan for two years. As you point out, I can just find what’s on sale and I’d be stocked for four years for $20. At that price, a lot of the pans will have very thin bottoms and be prone to warping. I’d probably budget $40 for two pans and look for the cheapest deal with a huge disc bottom.

  3. Hope this isn’t off topic or too boring, but I’ve been using Lodge pans for about the last 25 years without a problem. And compared to the prices I’ve seen for some of these other products…..well, you be the judge.

  4. @Stuart: It’s neither off-topic nor boring. 🙂

    The new Lodge Logic pans are the same as the old ones only pre-seasoned so you can use them right after purchasing them. The Logic Pro pans just have a slicker design. The price is still great however.

    Lodge also sells enameled cast iron pots, but the prices are exhorbitant.

  5. There was a similar scare about electric blankets causing breast cancer a few years ago…the results inconclusive.

    I suspect that over our lifetime we’ll figure out that many many things ’cause’ cancer.

    Let us know when we’ve some scientific proof, interesting.

  6. Terry, I agree. My rule of thumb after all of those years in a wet chemistry lab and reading many material safety data sheets (MSDS) is that if it is reactive and useful in the lab, don’t touch or drink it. It can cause cancer. Teflon is not one of those reactive substances. I still mourn the day they (USEPA) banned trichloroethane. Nasty carcinogen, but O! what a degreaser.

  7. Great blog post!! I get tired of so called experts telling us what is good for us and what isn’t. I have a teflon coated pan and I love it so I am not about to stop using it because someone thinks its bad for me. If I did that I wouldn’t be using my microwave, using a computer or eating chicken, ham, seafood, eggs or a thousand other food products that they have deemed dangerous for our health.

  8. Read this article with great interest. I think I have been converted to cast iron. It looks great and is cheaper anyway. Also, can’t make char kway teow without the ‘char’. What about enamelled cast iron. It says safe to about 180/200C i.e. low to medium heat. Is enamel safe at higher than reccommended temperatures?

  9. May. I think enabled cast iron is safe to pretty high temperatures. That style is very popular for Dutch Ovens.

    In general cast iron, all that happens at high temperatures is you burn off the oil and need to reseason after using the pan. The only thing you get is iron which isn’t bad for you (your body uses a little as minerals and passes the rest through). To reseason, just wash the pan, heat it at low temperture in the oven (to burn off the excess water), spray with oil, and heat it some more.

    Nearly every cast iron pan comes with instructions.

  10. I know that I’m way late, but this was a great post.

    Thanks for addressing the real issue of PFOA and at least offering a solution based on what you do.

    Lastly, who keeps a bird in their freakin’ kitchen (unless it’s for dinner)?


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