Is Teflon really safe?

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DEAR DR. GOTT: My wife is systematically discarding all of our Teflon-coated pots, pans and utensils in response to a perceived concern that Teflon is a health risk. Furthermore, we are significantly reducing our purchases of canned goods because of the plastic lining or thin film placed inside cans. Plastic ware is also being replaced with glass. Are there any realistic or measurable health issues associated with Teflon and plastic to justify such a concern?

DEAR READER: I had to research the topic carefully because of so many conflicting views on the subject. Let’s determine whether we can make some sense of the findings.

In January 2005, CBS Healthwatch covered the Teflon issue, reporting that people throughout the United States could face “a potential risk of developmental and other adverse effects” from exposure to low levels of a chemical used in making the nonstick substance Teflon.

The EPA issued a draft assessment of the possible risks of perfluorooctanoic acid and its salts, known as PFOA, or C8. The agency emphasized its assessment was preliminary and that there were significant uncertainties in its quantitative assessment of the risks of PFOA. Studies performed on animals revealed that PFOA is carcinogenic in rats, but the potential hazard for humans is less certain. The assessment suggested that the chemical targets the liver of rodents and went on to indicate PFOA could raise cholesterol and triglyceride levels in people. DuPont, the maker of Teflon, retaliated, reporting their study failed to disclose any health problems. They further stated their study failed to find an association between elevated PFOA blood levels and liver function, blood counts, prostate cancer, leukemia or multiple myeloma.

Health Watch Center indicates Teflon has received a bad rap of late. The connection between Teflon and serious health problems is tenuous. PFOA is used in the manufacture of the coating, rather than being found in the final product. So it seems coated products can be safe to use as long as we buy good-quality products, don’t heat pans to very high temperatures (above 500 F), and use wooden or plastic spoons and spatulas when stirring or turning foods.

Nonstick coatings may begin to deteriorate at temperatures above 500 F. Coatings may decompose and emit fumes. DuPont indicates that Teflon will not decompose until temperatures reach about 600 F, and cooking anything at that temperature would burn food beyond any edible state.

There was an issue a few years ago about birds dying from the inhalation of cooking fumes, regardless of whether it was nonstick or otherwise. Birds have extremely sensitive respiratory systems and should not be in the kitchen or cooking area, so this cannot be blamed on DuPont.

Stainless steel, a combination of several metals, includes nickel, chromium and molybdenum. Should the stainless steel become pitted, those metals have the potential to enter foods. Anodized aluminum, copper, ceramic or other glass cookware may be safe alternatives, but the most widely used one appears to be cast iron. Minimal iron seeps off the utensil and into food products, but the body needs iron to produce red blood cells. It’s a safe additive, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The list goes on and on.

Take precautions by using plastic or wood spoons and spatulas when using your nonstick pans so as not to compromise the surfaces, and keep cooking temperatures within a reasonable range.

As far as canned goods and plastic are concerned, I don’t believe there is an issue, despite several highly popular e-mails claiming freezing or heating foods in plastic can cause cancer. To the best of my knowledge, no reputable source has ever confirmed this; however, be sure to use only approved plastic containers in the microwave or freezer, as they have received FDA approval for this purpose.

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