Does scratched Teflon coated frying pans contain carcinogens which can cause cancer?

Does scratched Teflon coated frying pans contain carcinogens which can cause cancer?

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Is it true that using scratched Teflon-coated pans contain carcinogens, and if so, can they be consumed through the food cooked in them?


Teflon is a polymer of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and related compounds. PFOA is thought to be a carcinogen.

I think there's an urban legend that if you really heat teflon up or burn it (it doesn't burn as flouroxides are not stable in air) that you might get some of the constituent chemicals out into the air.

Once the flourocarbons are polymerized into fibers and surface coated a metal pan, they are chemically inert and aren't carcinogenic. Teflon can be made to burn and some noxious fumes produced, but they are not especially carcinogenic.

Even after all this, this paper reviewed PFOA exposure and points out that most people in industrialized countries have some PFOA in their blood and this does not seem to be related to a strong incidence of cancer as the level of exposure is so low.

Flouro-carbon compounds are terribly inert - thats why teflon is so tough. If PFOA is dangerous, then Teflon is > 10 million times less dangerous. If PFOA is dangerous, crossing the street is many more times dangerous.

Even PFOA will be eliminated from Teflon production, supposedly next year (2015).

The question and link imply that if cooking with Teflon generates carcinogens that carcinogens then always lead to cancer. This is not always true. In some cases exposure to carcinogens may signal protective pathways. Oncogenesis and exposure to both genotoxic and non-genotoxic carcinogens are not always positively correlated. Cooking with Teflon influences how you cook, and it's how you cook that has the greatest effect on the levels of carcinogens in food.

Cooked food contains carcinogens in the form of reactive oxygen species. This is related more to the heat its cooked at than the type of cookware used. Carcinogen exposure in the heating of biological material is an interesting subject.

Carcinogens can be classified in 2 categories (1):

  • Genotoxic carcinogens (Reactive Oxygen Species/ROS)
  • Non-genotoxic carcinogens (PFOA is thought to be here)

Genotoxic carcinogens facilitate the formation of cancer through alterations in a cell's DNA.

Non-genotoxic '… carcinogens have no direct interaction with DNA; they are believed to cause tumors by disrupting cellular structures and by changing the rate of either cell proliferation or of processes that increase the risk of genetic error. (1)'

The molecular mechanism most often thought of for cancer formation is genotoxic oncogenesis, damage to DNA. Here, genotoxic oncogenesis often involves a reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS may generate free radicals which, when reacting with other molecules, generate more free radicals. Another example of a reaction involving free radicals is a fire. Human cells contain genes for antioxidant enzymes, like glutathione and superoxide dismutase, which catalytically converts the free radical superoxide into hydrogen peroxide.

The abundance of ROS in our cells has 2 components:

  • Production of ROS
  • Depletion of ROS by upregulation of antioxidant enzymes

Intracellular levels of ROS positively regulate levels of antioxidant enzymes like glutathione and superoxide dismutase (2). This means that more oxidative stress leades to more protection from ROS by antioxidant enzymes. This is why exercise, while increasing ROS levels, actually protects against them.

ROS are also produced during the cooking of food, especially meat (3). This applies to any type of cookware, any method of heating of any food: protein, carbohydrates, fats.

  • 'For example, it only takes a few hours at 70C to have the same extent of autoxidation which at room temperature requires months (4)'

Intracellular ROS are unavoidable. They are produced by normal metabolism, exercise, cosmic radiation, during the consumption of food. Balancing this are endogenous antioxidant enzymes. The antioxidant power of glutatione exceeds any known nutritional supplement (5).

Exercise is an extremely effective upregulator of antioxidant enzymes, eclipsing any antioxidant supplement or change in cookware. Regular physical activity will most likely be the best prevention one can take against ROS induced genotoxic oncogenesis.

Tefal and Non-stick Pans

Most non-stick pans, including the famous Tefal pans, are coated in a material called polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE), which is also known as Teflon. It is a chemical made of carbon and fluoride, which sounds toxic, but is actually a very stable molecule. It doesn’t react with acids, alkali, water, fats or anything really. It is very durable, and resistant to scratches, but if you use metal cooking utensils on the pan you can scratch the Teflon off, which then may get in your food. Although eating Teflon isn’t a good idea, it is biologically inert, and will pass through your digestive system intact. It won’t get absorbed, react with food/ enzymes/ cells or damage your digestive tract in any way. Teflon is considered to be ‘biocompatible’ because it is so stable in the body, and often you will find things like heart valves are made with Teflon because it is so safe.

4 Pieces of Toxic Cookware

Here are my top four pieces of toxic cookware you should immediately replace.

1. Ceramic-Coated Cookware

Ceramic-coated pots, pans and cutlery may look nice, but they aren’t so nice when it comes to leeching harmful chemicals. They’re manufactured from various metals that are coated with a synthetic polymer, which is softer than metal (1). This means that there is some sort of metal (usually hard anodized aluminum) that has been coated with a layer of ceramic. Keep in mind that this is different from 100% ceramic cookware, which is completely safe and will be mentioned under “safe alternatives” below.

While ceramic coats are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)-free, some products may contain lead or cadmium. This is mostly true for products that come from Latin America and Asia, as there are stricter requirements by the FDA in the United States, which require ceramic products to be free of lead or cadmium (2).

Unfortunately, ceramic coats don’t last that long (about one year), and once the coating chips (after high temperatures and mishandling), the glaze will often chip. If your ceramic-coated cookware does indeed contain lead and cadmium, this will cause the heavy metals to leach into your food.

Lead is extremely toxic, and can lead to symptoms like hearing loss, vomiting, seizures, constipation, abdominal pain, sluggishness and fatigue (3). Not to mention, if the chip goes as far as the aluminum underneath the ceramic coating, then you have the possibility of aluminum particles entering your body (which, as we all know, is highly linked to neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease (4)).

If you must purchase ceramic-coated cookware, be sure to look at companies that are based in the USA, or companies that use 100% ceramic to reduce aluminum exposure. I’ll list these companies below.

2. Non-Stick Cookware (Teflon)

Non-stick pans have gained major popularity in the homes of millions. They’re convenient and easy to clean, and reduce the hassle of any food particles sticking to the bottom of the pan. While these pans are loved by those with little time to deal with the fuss ruining, say, the perfect pancake, they also come with the danger of toxic chemicals leaching into your food.

Non-stick cookware is manufactured with a synthetic coating of PTFE (mentioned above), a plastic polymer that releases toxins if heated above 450 degrees Fahrenheit. This synthetic polymer, also known as Teflon (a DuPont brand trademark), has been linked to cancer and reproductive problems (5).

To put this to the test, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) discovered that it only took about 5 minutes for a Teflon-coated pan to reach 721ºF on a conventional, electric stove top. This test showed that the cookware exceeded the temperatures deemed “safe” by DuPont themselves (about 660ºF). EWG found that Teflon-coated pans essentially turned toxic through the simple act of preheating a pan, on a burner set on high. At 680ºF, Teflon pans released at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, two global pollutants, and MFA, a chemical lethal to humans at low doses (6).

Inhalation of the toxic fumes released by Teflon cookware can cause polymer fume fever, which causes chills, fevers, chest tightness, and mild cough. These fumes are even lethal to birds, kill millions of pets every year (7).

There are pretty good alternatives to non-stick cookware, and I’ll list those below. Many green companies have come out with a Teflon alternative that is generally pretty safe, and a much better alternative to the toxic cookware that DuPont creates.

3. Aluminum Cookware

Cooking with aluminum or aluminum foil is also pretty dangerous, given the dangers of aluminum itself. There’s been quite a bit of research linking elevated aluminum levels to central nervous system problems. One 2013 study in Immunologic Research linked aluminum to Alzheimer’s, ALS, and autism spectrum disorders (8).

While aluminum cookware is often coated to prevent leaching, the coating does tend to chip and deteriorate, just like ceramic materials. Instead of utilizing aluminum cookware and aluminum foil, invest your money in a greener option – there’s lots of them!

4. Copper Cookware

Copper cookware, while beautiful, is also quite toxic. The popularity of copper is mainly thanks to the material’s conductive properties that enable even and quick heating.

Uncoated copper has the ability to quickly leach into your food, especially when heated. Even copper cookware that is coated, often contains nickel, an extremely toxic and highly allergenic compound. Too much copper in the diet suppresses zinc levels, which is necessary for proper immune function. Lowered zinc levels are also linked to malfunctioning of the adrenals and thyroid gland.

There are a lot better alternatives when it comes to copper. If you require consistent and fast heating, there are other safer alternatives out there that don’t come with the dangers of any leaching metals or other compounds.

What’s the worry About PFOE and PTFE?

The debate about nonstick cookware doesn’t contest its convenience or ease of use. It concerns itself with whether two compounds: PFOA and PTFE are safe, especially when used as cooking surfaces. There are a number of responses to this issue, depending on how extensively the potential harm of these substances is considered.

Some cooks are concerned primarily with potential adverse effects to their own health. Others have to consider the well being of young children they cook for. And of course, there are those who want to understand the consequences of their decisions in the kitchen have on the environment as a whole.

Here, TKJ takes a look at concerns about PFOA and PTFE cookware from different angles. We also consider alternatives that will allow you to enjoy nonstick cookware even if you decide PFOA/PTFE isn’t for you.

PFOA, PTFE and the Differences between the Two

PFOA, short for perfluorooctanoic acid, is a synthetic compound that has many applications. It is known to repel water and oil and is used in the manufacturing process of some PTFE cookware.

PTFE, a distinct substance, is a synthetic polymer. It’s best known by the brand name Teflon, which is a trademark of the DuPont Company.

DuPont is a US based chemical manufacturer where, in the 1930s, an employee inadvertently produced the first batch of PTFE while working on a different project. DuPont quickly started manufacturing PTFE for industrial applications.

PTFE was famously used as a valve and pipe sealant during World War II nuclear experiments known as The Manhattan Project. It is extremely strong and tough but is also flexible, which made it a good option.

So, what’s this got to do with cookware? In the 1950s, a French chemist’s wife encouraged him to try using Teflon on her pots and pans. The couple found a way to bond DuPont’s Teflon to cooking surfaces The started the company Tefal, known as T-fal in the US.

T-fal continues to manufacture popular and affordable nonstick cookware. This has resulted in Teflon becoming a household name. Many people call all nonstick cookware Teflon, like they call all tissues Kleenex.

However, not all nonstick cookware is Teflon or PTFE. And, not all PTFE cookware relies on the use of PFOA when it’s manufactured. Understanding the difference is important.

Potential Dangers of PFOA and PTFE Cookware

Cookware coated with PTFE has been FDA approved since 1960. However, misinformation has resulted in many people being fearful that cooking with Teflon or other nonstick pans can cause cancer or illness.

One of the most commonplace misconceptions is that cooking with scratched or flaking nonstick pans is hazardous to people’s health. While pieces of nonstick coating can flake off into food, this is not the number one risk associated with nonstick pans.

Even the American Cancer Society acknowledges that Teflon/PTFE is not a carcinogen. It is the PFOA used in the manufacturing process that can be hazardous.

PFOA is known to be a toxic, cancer-causing agent in animals. It is used in the production of some, but not all PTFE cookware to bond PTFE to the cooking vessel.

PFOA exposure is linked to kidney and testicular cancer, colitis, thyroid problems, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure in pregnancy.

But, cooking with nonstick frying pans is not considered to be a relevant or worrisome source of exposure to PFOA.

We have dived a little deeper into this with our article the dangers of Teflon

Why consider PFOA-Free alternatives?

There are two major reasons to consider PFOA-Free alternatives.

First off, most nonstick pans should not be used to cook at high heats. While PFOA exposure via PTFE cookware is not a major concern, almost all nonstick pans contain fluorine, a chemical that burns off when overheated.

Fluorine exposure can be dangerous to humans and pets–especially birds, who have more sensitive respiratory systems. While the possibility of significant exposure is rare, drastic overheating of nonstick cookware can result in a condition called polymer-fume fever. Symptoms include headache, fever and chills. Pet birds may even die from overexposure.

Prevention involves never heating PTFE cookware over 500 degrees. This means you’ll need to choose a different cooking vessel, like cast iron skillets or stainless steel pans for searing steaks or anything else that requires a high heat. It’s also important to remember that nonstick frying pans should not be preheated–with or without oil.

Furthermore, while cooking with PTFE might not hurt you or anyone you’re cooking for, if it’s manufactured using PFOA, it may be hurting someone else.

DuPont has faced fines from the Environmental Protection Agency as well as a class action lawsuit brought by the community of Washington, West Virginia, where one of their major chemical plants is located. Scientists found increased levels of PFOA in Washington’s drinking water and in the bodies of the people exposed to it.

A court-appointed panel of scientists is engaged in an ongoing investigation to determine whether PFOA is responsible for increased instances of certain diseases in the community.

Until a verdict is reached, avoiding PTFE cookware is the best way to ensure your cooking habits are safe for yourself, the environment and others.

Though traditional non-stick pots and pans may *seem* like they’re getting the job done, they can release toxic fumes when overheated. The processing method used during production also pollutes our water supply and has been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, infertility, liver damage, and thyroid disease. No thanks.

Rest assured, we spent hundreds of hours (we really did) poring over documents from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as research papers in PubMed while consulting experts along the way. We also considered cookware material characteristics and took into account the potential for heavy metals to leach due to long exposure to highly acidic foods (more on this down below).

Our research-backed collection of cookware recommendations fits every need and only features cookware that we have personally tested from brands that are transparent about their production practices and the safety of their products.

Not everyone’s a chef (thank the deities). But even the most takeout-loving friend has a special recipe up her sleeve. We’ve thoughtfully researched and tested cookware not only for use, but for frequency. Our recommendation? Start with a base set and fill in from there based on your daily mileage, with pots and pans that will help you get what you need and want on the regular, whether that’s pan-seared veg, meat, or braised and slow-cooked dishes. Remember: We’re here to help you get to where you need to be, so ask us anytime you need help deciding which pan or pot to buy--or what recipe to try.

The Bottom Line

This new research is quite disturbing, and it should cause us to be more mindful of the food we are consuming𠅊nd what we are using to cook it—whenever possible. It might be worth buying some foods organic, as studies have found PFAS accumulate in greater amounts in the edible portion of a plant.

It’s also worth investigating whether your cookware and bakeware were produced with these chemicals. Nonstick coatings (like Teflon) were originally made with a common PFAS that is no longer allowed to be produced, but the replacement chemicals may not be any safer. Check out this guide from the University of Calfornia-Berkely to help you make an informed decision.  

If my nonstick pans are scratched, do I need to throw them out?

Nonstick cookware is popular for a reason. It allows cooks to use less butter and oil during cooking and it makes cleanup a breeze. The coating in today’s nonstick pans is much more durable than it used to be, making the pans longer lasting and harder to chip.

When your pans are scratched, some of the nonstick coating can flake into your food (the pan also becomes stickier). This can release toxic compounds. What is even more dangerous is cooking in a nonstick pan over high heat (this releases a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid). With moderate use, nonstick pans last only about five years. If your pan is damaged, throw it out to be on the safe side.

To keep your pans is good shape, use wooden spoons to stir food and avoid steel wool and stacking your pans.

1. Stainless steel

The first safe cookware you should use is stainless steel. Stainless steel is a substance made up of two or more chemical elements. There are more than 57 stainless steel alloys. Some common stainless steel additives include:

You can find stainless steel in commercial cookers, pasteurizers, and other equipment.

Its main advantages include easy cleaning, good corrosion resistance, and durability. For stainless steel to resist rust, it needs 12 to 20% chromium.

Stainless steel starts with melting scrap metals and additives in a furnace. The furnace heats the metals many hours to create a molten, fluid mixture. Exact temperatures vary based on the grade of steel created.

Stainless steel is a safe metal for cooking

Carbon increases the hardness and strength of iron. But, too much carbon can create problems. Therefore, manufacturers need to reduce the carbon content. After that, they ensure that the metal meets the requirements for its intended grade.

Nickel-containing stainless steels do not alter the food's taste or color. It's also safe to cook or store food in it. Another benefit of stainless steel is that it is easy to clean and sterilize. There are several stainless steel standards.

200 Series
This stainless steel series is food grade. To lower costs, manganese may replace the nickel. You should avoid this series because they are more prone to corrosion.

300 Series
300 series stainless steel are safe for food preparation. The 304 SS is the most common stainless steel grade used. It has more chromium and nickel content.

Compared to the 200 series, the 304 SS has better rust and corrosion resistance. Its disadvantage is that it tends to rust when exposed to salt.

Sometimes, the flatware grading system describes 304 SS as 18/10 and 18/8. The first number represents the amount of chromium in percent. And the second number is the amount of nickel.

So 18/10 stainless steel means 18% chromium and 10% nickel. Likewise, 18/8 stainless steel has 18% chromium and 8% nickel.

The difference in nickel between these standards is only 2%. You will not notice much performance difference between 18/10 and 18/8.

316 SS is high-end stainless steel with excellent corrosion resistance. Another name for it is marine stainless steel since it is resistant to corrosion caused by salt. The 316 SS has many medical uses and is also known as surgical stainless steel.

What makes the 316 SS so durable is the addition of a small amount of molybdenum. 316 SS consists of 16–18% chromium, 10–14% nickel, and 2% molybdenum.

This type of stainless steel is quite expensive, so there isn't much cookware that uses it.

430 Series
The 430 SS is a magnetic and nickel-free grade of stainless steel. In the flatware grading system, 430 SS is 18/0 since it has 18% chromium and almost 0% nickel.

It still contains a negligible amount of nickel at about 0.75%. Because of the absence of nickel, 430 SS is more prone to corrosion.

Even if stainless steel is safe to use, it may leach metals under certain conditions.

How To Avoid Stainless Steel From Leaching Nickel

According to the FDA, stainless steel is safe as long as it has at least 16% chromium. Stainless steel cookware may leak chromium and nickel if you make acidic dishes such as tomato. Even if you're sensitive to these metals, you can still use stainless steel cookware.

If you're looking for stainless steel cookware with less nickel, you can do the magnet test. Check if a magnet will stick to the sides, bottom, and inside of the stainless steel pot. If the pan is magnetic, it is nickel-free.

Stainless steel cookware may leak chromium and nickel if you make acidic dishes such as tomato

To minimize the risk of nickel leaching, buy stainless steel grades like 18/8 or 18/0. Or purchase 400 series stainless steel or 300 series. Stay away from the 200 series.

Rating Calphalon

Every cookware manufacturer has its pros and cons, and deciding which one to buy is a matter of what you, the cook, like. Are the handles riveted onto the base? Are they long enough to give you leverage when lifting? Is the pot or pan too heavy for your strength? Like choosing a piece of clothing, selecting the right cookware is a personal choice that depends on how it fits you.

As for durability, Consumer Reports rates Calphalon as “very good” for its price range, and it can be used on all cooking surfaces, including induction. Giving an “even cook” without hotspots, they are also heat-resistant up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, so you can sear on your stovetop and finish in the oven without damaging the cookware.

Are non-stick pans safe?

Spending each morning at the kitchen sink scraping at the charred remains of breakfast gets tedious after a while. Non-stick cookware may seem like an appealing alternative — but is it safe?

Usually when people inquire about the safety of their non-stick cookware, they're talking about the brand Teflon, said Suzanne Fenton, a reproductive endocrinologist at the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina. Also known as polytertrafluoroethylene (PTFE), this clear plastic is used to coat metal pots and pans, giving them a waxy, easy-to-clean surface — and for decades, scientists have debated whether it's safe for cooking.

Experts tend to agree that Teflon itself isn&rsquot a problem. The coating itself is considered non-toxic. Even if you ingest small flakes of it, it passes right through you. But some experts are concerned about what happens when Teflon gets too hot. "When pans are overheated, that PTFE coating begins to disintegrate," Fenton told Live Science. As Teflon breaks down, it releases a host of toxic gases. In rare instances, breathing in these chemical fumes can cause polymer fume fever, a condition characterized by a high fever, shortness of breath and weakness. These gases also deadly to birds — lightbulbs coated in Teflon have wiped out poultry houses. Of particular concern is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), one of the chemicals released when Teflon pans heat up. Long-term exposure to PFOA is linked to a host of conditions from cancer to thyroid disease, Fenton said.

Not all researchers think that people need to worry about their Teflon pans breaking down. Some point out that no studies have specifically analyzed the long-term effects of Teflon pans on humans. Instead, these studies focus on the health-effects of Teflon&rsquos chemical byproducts, like PFOA. Much of the data on these toxins come from cases of environmental exposure — such as drinking water or factory settings, where exposure levels are much higher than they would be from non-stick cookware. "Generally speaking, nonstick pans are not dangerous," said Kyle Steenland, a professor of environmental health at Emory University in Atlanta.

Steenland and other scientists also argue that people don't cook at high enough temperatures for these chemical reactions to take place. "Now, if you burn your pans for an hour at high heat, it [Teflon] will break down," "But that will be the least of your problems because your house will be on fire."

However, research suggests pans can easily reach a temperature hot enough to disintegrate Teflon. One group of researchers in Canada published a 2001 study in the journal Nature, in which Teflon broke down at 680 degrees Fahrenheit (360 degrees Celsius). For context: a Teflon-coated pan can reach 750 F (399 C) if left for eight minutes at high heat on a stovetop, according to a 2017 article published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research. And at lower temperatures, Teflon coating still breaks down over time, according to a 1998 article published in the journal Polymer Degradation and Stability. If you consistently heat your pan to 500 F (260 C the temperature at which we sear steak), the pan should last around 2.3 years, according to the 2001 Nature study.

In 2015, PFOA was voluntarily phased out in the U.S., but the chemical is still widely used in China, according to Steenland and Fenton. However, it's possible that the clear plastic coating known as PTFE can still create PFOA when it breaks down, research finds.

Taking good care of non-stick pans can help keep your kitchen safe. "It's really important that you use the pans on low-to-medium heat, and you don't use utensils that will scratch it," Fenton said.

But in some cases, it's best to ditch Teflon pans altogether, Fenton added — especially if you're pregnant, breastfeeding or have young children. PFOA in particular is tied to problems with kids' development. That's because this chemical is considered an endocrine disruptor, meaning it interferes with the body's hormone system. PFOA exposure causes elevated estrogen in male rats and delayed mammary-gland development in female mice, according to a 2012 article published in The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In humans, the chemical is linked to obesity, diabetes, low sperm quality and irregular menstrual cycles — potential signs of endocrine disruption.

Luckily, there's a wealth of other options for those averse to scrubbing pans. Cookware made of anodized aluminum (a product that protects against corrosion and scratches) and ceramic is non-stick and perfectly safe, Fenton said. If cared for correctly, a cast-iron skillet can also serve as another non-toxic, non-stick pan, while enriching food with blood-building iron.

"Non-stick pans come in many forms," Fenton said, "one can certainly safely cook healthy meals in them."