Ok, your non-stick skillet isn’t really trying to kill you, but that doesn’t mean it’s 100% safe either. Ever heard of ‘Teflon flu’? Probably not. I never did until I had it (#smh). If you use any non-stick cookware, you should be aware if it and a few other concerns associated with these common kitchen items. I’m not trying to scare you—just trying to keep you informed. Knowledge is power AND prevention. One of my patients and I both found out these risks the hard way; don’t let it happen to you. I can personally attest that there are some things you rather read about than experience. In this post, I breakdown the ‘non-sticky truth’ about the dangers of non-stick cookware by sharing our stories, highlighting some research studies, and giving a few tips for safer options.
A mysterious case of ‘Teflon Flu’ from using a non-stick wok.
A year ago, a man came into my clinic complaining of a chronic cough, recurrent fevers, headaches, and chest pain. Since I’m a gastroenterologist (a doc who deals with “bowel issues”), it initially seemed odd that he came to see me for those symptoms. It was like going to a Mexican restaurant and asking the chef to make spaghetti. He sought me out because of my nutrition background. He had seen multiple doctors before me, including an evaluation at the premier destination for healthcare, the Mayo Clinic. His extensive workup didn’t lead to anywhere except for some frustration and a stack of hospital bills. Everyone, except the patient, assumed that acid reflux was the cause of his symptoms. He was treated with multiple acid-blocking drugs and underwent multiple endoscopies (camera tests to evaluate the upper gastrointestinal tract), but his symptoms never improved. Honestly, acid reflux seemed like a reasonable diagnosis, but it didn’t explain his fevers and lack of improvement with his treatment regimen. Upon further questioning, he told me that his symptoms only occurred when his roommate was cooking stir-fries (which was every day—dude really, really liked stir-fries). It didn’t seem like a food allergy. As a guy who cooks a lot of stir-fries myself, I initially thought his symptoms were from inhaling spice tinged fumes from stir-frying hot chili peppers—pepper spray does have its name for a reason. However, he then told me he even felt sick while his roommate was heating up his wok—before any food touched the pan. With more questions, I found out the roommate was pre-heating a non-stick wok on high heat for prolonged periods of time. Right then, I knew he had Teflon flu, a flu-like condition due to exposure to fumes from Teflon coated cookware. His symptoms went away immediately after switching to a stainless steel wok.
What is ‘Teflon flu’ and how did I know about it?
Teflon flu, also known as polymer fume fever, is a physical reaction to inhaling toxic gases released from Teflon coated cookware. The symptoms include the sudden onset of fevers, cough, shortness of breath, headaches, and chest tightness. It’s not a commonly discussed condition, nor did I learn about it medical school. The only reason I knew about it is that I probably had it myself once from cleaning my oven.
Several years ago, I had to clean up some spilled food in my oven. Ironically, I didn’t want to use any oven cleaners because I didn’t feel like having my windows open in the arctic chill known as winter in Chicago. I thought using the oven’s self-cleaning function would be a better option. Epic fail. The self-cleaning feature cleans the oven by heating it to ridiculously high temperatures. Most ovens contain non-stick Teflon coated components. After 15 minutes of letting my oven scorch itself, I started feeling like I was smoking a hookah while running a marathon, chugging a bottle of Malort, and being punched in my chest by a dude who spent too much time on 26th and California (Cook County Jail). I was disoriented, I couldn’t breathe, and my chest was on fire. It was the closest I’ve been to death since that night I went drinking with some football players in college—my nightmares are still plagued by random bottles of Bombay Sapphire wearing maize and blue jerseys. My only motivation for surviving the chemical warfare spewing from my oven was imagining the look on my wife’s face if she came home to a condo smelling like cyanide and burnt asparagus spears [some things are worse than death (to my wife—I love you)]. I mustered all the strength I could find, painstakingly crawled 5 feet to my oven, and turned it off like I was diffusing a bomb. After airing out the condo in the dead of our Game of Thrones like winter, I looked up the health hazards associated with the self-cleaning oven function. That’s when I came across all the concerns about Teflon coated cookware.
Is non-stick cookware really that bad or am I just messing with you for click-bait?
These stories I shared really happened, albeit mine was slightly dramatized. If you don’t believe me, I don’t recommend using the self-cleaning oven function to test me out, just check out a few of the items below.
Studies by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) show that heating non-stick cookware releases various toxic gases, including some similar to chemical warfare agents used in World War II.
I love the environmental working group. They’re probably the best thing out since the consumer protection agency. According to their research, “A Teflon coated pan can reach 721°F in just five minutes under [high heat on the stovetop].” Research from Dupont demonstrates that Teflon coated skillets can release gases starting at 464°F. The gases become more toxic as the temperature of the pan increases (check out the infographic at the bottom of the page). The EWG highlights some particularly concerning findings:
“At 680°F Teflon pans release at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, two global pollutants, and MFA, a chemical lethal to humans at low doses. At temperatures that DuPont scientists claim are reached on stovetop drip pans (1000°F), non-stick coatings break down to a chemical warfare agent known as PFIB, and a chemical analog of the WWII nerve gas phosgene.”
If you have birds and cook with non-stick pans, I strongly advise you to keep your birds out of the kitchen and/or think about non-stick alternatives. In birds, the gases released by non-stick pans cause Teflon Toxicosis, a deadly condition characterized by bleeding within the lungs. The disease is well documented in the veterinary literature. One case report even recorded the deaths of 2400 birds due to gases coming from Teflon coated light bulbs. I can’t think of another household item that can casually take out birds by accident.
This year (2017) DuPont agreed to pay $671 million as a settlement over lawsuits for a leak of a chemical used to make Teflon called perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA.
Settlements for that much money don’t happen without a good reason. Dupont put together a panel of experts to evaluate the health risks associated with PFOA. The panel concluded: “that there was a probable link with six illnesses: kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol.” There’s no evidence that cooking with these items will lead to these conditions, but it makes me think twice about what pans I have in my kitchen.
Alternatives to non-stick cookware and ways to possibly make the non-stick items less hazardous
- Cast iron, stainless steel, and ceramic are great options. I bought my first cast iron skillet after my run in with Teflon flu. It’s become the workhorse in my kitchen. Now I have several different cast iron options (dutch ovens, griddles, et cetera). Lodge is a great cast iron brand, and it’s definitely cheaper than Le Creuset. If you correctly pre-heat your pans, you won’t miss the non-stick coatings. Plus, you’ll probably brown your food better with these non-stick alternatives.
- I didn’t throw away all of my nonstick items, but I did get rid of the cookware that had damaged coatings. With the non-stick pans I still use, I never expose them to high heat. I also avoid scratching the non-stick surface by using wooden utensils instead of metal ones.
- Avoid the self-cleaning oven feature, trust me.
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I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.