Teflon is chemical compound discovered by Roy J. Plunkett of DuPont in 1938. It was introduced as a commercial product in 1946. Teflon, also known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), is a polymer of fluorinated ethylene.
Teflon has the lowest coefficient of friction of any known solid material. As a result, it is “slick” and is frequently used as a non-stick coating for cookware and in other industrial applications.
Teflon is very stable and doesn’t react with other chemicals in the same way that metallic surfaces like copper, aluminum and cast iron can. Teflon is also used in other applications like fabric protection, paint manufacturing, and packaging items.
Perfluoroocanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8 is a chemical used in making Teflon and other fluorotelomers (chemicals which contain many fluoride atoms). PFOA is burned off in the manufacturing process and should not be present in high amounts in final products but it has the potential to be a serious health concern.
PFOA does not break down in the environment or in the human body, so the material persists in the body for many years. It is likely present in low levels in nearly everyone’s blood but in areas where water or soil has become contaminated with PFOA, blood levels of residents in the area can be much higher. People exposed to PFOA at work many also have higher levels, sometimes much higher.
The Environmental Protection Agency has noted concern with Teflon, but more specifically with PFOA. The EPA’s scientific advisory panel has identified PFOA as a “likely carcinogen.” Until recently, the EPA has classified it as a “suggested” carcinogen, requiring less precaution.
The agency previously filed a complaint alleging the company had withheld evidence of its own concerns about PFOA. The report claimed that a DuPont study of female workers exposed to the substance found that two out of seven women gave birth to babies with facial defects, and the company failed to report its studies adequately. By failing to report a suspected threat, DuPont may have violated the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Once manufactured, Teflon’s PTFE itself, has a high melting point, about 620 degrees Fahrenheit (°F), making it ideal for cookware at normal temperatures. Unfortunately, when heated over 662 °F, it begins to degrade, releasing fine particles and gases which can damage the lungs. When PTFE aerosolized, it can produce symptoms of “Teflon Flu” but symptoms generally subside after a short period of time.
DuPont initially denied the possibility of Teflon breakdown and toxicity but in recent years, under the threat of litigation, DuPont has publicly discussed the risks of using Teflon on very hot surfaces, however no action has been taken.
Teflon Health Risks
Long term effects of PFOA are still not well quantified but people whose water contains high concentration levels are advised to use bottled water. People who have been injured due to toxic exposure from products, contamination events or while at work may be eligible for compensation and should seek legal advice.
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