A Pan’s Just A Pan (Until it Kills Your Bird)

Chelsea
6 min readJan 28, 2021

You’re doing good, buying those orgo veggies, working that farmer’s market, cookin’ up some real good wholesome foods every day.

BUT.

What are you cookin’ up those real good wholesome foods IN?

That pan your mom bought you when you went to college in 2007? Or that pan you scored at HomeGoods for $19.99?

Don’t hate me, but I’m gonna tell you to get rid of it. Somebody told me the same thing. Well, not directly. I too was cruising the internet, reading up on the non-toxic, clean lifestyle and feeling good about myself and my choices. Until I stumbled upon a blog that spoke to the irony of all the effort people go to to avoid pesticides and herbicides in their food and chemicals in their water, only to cook their clean food in a pan that was emitting toxins into the air they breath.

OK. The pan I used for too many years was a T-fal non-stick from Target, like the one below. Only mine had an awesome red handle.

Once I started reading about pan toxicity, I tried to find out what my T-fal non-stick coating was made out of. Target’s website only said that it had “superior non-stick design” and that the baking surface was “non-stick.”¹

Okay, okay. I sought out the pan on the T-fal website, which had more info. The pan was listed as part of a 12 piece non-stick set. Under the FAQ for the set, the first question was Does T-Fal Cookware Contain PFOA?²

Now. As of January 2020, the House voted to pass a bill that designated PFOA as a hazardous substance that needed to be regulated by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA).³ In the bill, it was recognized that a “variety of products contain [PFOA], such as nonstick cookware.”

I would just like to take a moment to say that the EPA knew about the potential harmful effects of PFOA in 1998 and did not issue an Action Plan until 2019. Anyway, I digress.

T-fal doesn’t have PFOA, good news!

So, the FAQ we are really looking for is:

What is the T-Fal non-stick coating made of, and is it safe?

T-fal’s response is that that T-fal non-stick coating is a “technical coating made from a polymer name Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE),” in which “public health authorities in Europe and in the USA…demonstrated that PTFE is an inert substance which does not chemically react with food, water, or domestic cleaning products” and “is totally harmless in case of ingestion.”

The above statement is curiously lacking anything about what happens to T-fal non-stick coating when it is overheated. I guess you aren’t lying if you just omit?

I knew that the danger in T-fal was all in the temperature of the pan, but I struggled to find anything on the T-fal website that covered this. How were these innocent folks who didn’t know going to find out?

I finally located the T-fal cookware instructions, which advised to “use low to medium heat” because “high heat may damage your T-fal non-stick cookware” along with this CAUTION:

I can’t have my m’f’ing BIRD in the kitchen with this pan?? How come they don’t address that these fumes can do to ME? And wtf is an “ultra high setting”?!

OK, maybe it’s just T-fal that you should be worried about. Maybe if you drop the extra cash on a fancier non-stick pan it’s safer? Nope. Most non-stick pans use Teflon, which is owned by Chemours, who is a spin-off of the chemical giant DuPont. They’re all using the same chemical, PTFE, as the basis of their non-stick formula.

Going back to birds —

Please just Google birds and Teflon. It’s funny, because as of May 2003, the Teflon website continued to claim that birds were safe in the kitchen with your PTFE pan at cooking temperatures up to 500 degrees F. I can no longer find that statement on their website. And there has been oh-so-many records of birds dying when pans were not used at “ultra high settings.”¹⁰

[side note — in my Googling, I came across Nationwide Insurance’s own page on Teflon poisoning in birds. Because, you know, you might need to insure your bird in case it’s poisoned by you in the kitchen!]

Nationwide is on your bird’s side!

Let’s take this back to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and see what they have to say.

EWG

It’s not good. According the EWG,

“in two to five minutes on a conventional stovetop, cookware coated with Teflon and other non-stick surfaces can exceed temperatures at which the coating breaks apart and emits toxic particles and gases.”¹¹

What does Good Housekeeping have to say about non-stick pots and pans? Maybe EWG is exaggerating.

Good HouseKeeping

Well, it turns out that Good Housekeeping conducted its own tests on non-stick cookware and determined that non-stick pans “are safe as long as they’re not overheated.”¹² You know how quickly a pan can overheat to above the ultra high setting of 500 degrees F? Per Good Housekeeping:

Per the Good Housekeeping Institute, which ran their own tests

Bajesus.

Let’s dig deeper. Using this pan at high temperatures can emit toxic chemicals.

Let’s think about how this pan is made. Who in what factory is being exposed to what chemicals? What effect does this have on them? Not to mention the effect on the environment around the factory.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a study in 2017 evaluating carcinogenic risks to humans, focusing on tetrafluoroethylene.

IARC WHO

To make this PTFE, a chemical called tetrafluoroethylene is required. Tetrafluoroethylene’s main use is in the manufacture of PTFE for non-stick coatings on cookware.¹³ Tetrafluoroethylene can emit “highly toxic fluorocarbon fumes,” which can be inhaled by humans and may result “in irritation of the respiratory tract and buildup of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema).”¹⁴ As such, tetrafluoroethylene is classified as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program.¹⁵

Now, to the workers who are in the plants with these chemicals.

The IARC study considered occupational exposure for workers at 6 different plants that manufactured PTFE, from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, the UK and the US. Although each plant differed in terms of the workplace environment, work processes, ventilation systems, use of respiratory protective equipment, cleanliness, etc., it was determined that workers were exposed to tetrafluoroethylene.¹⁶ Study of the health of the workers from 1950–2008 revealed that:

In the overall analysis, elevated risks were seen for all cancer sites of a-priori interest: liver, kidney and leukemia.

In 1999, the IARC had also studied the carcinogenicity of tetrafluoroethylene in rodents. They concluded that in mice exposed to tetrafluoroethylene, the incidence of histiocytic sarcoma (in organs such as liver, lung, spleen, mesenteric lymph node, bone marrow, and kidney) was significantly greater in all exposed groups than in the control group.¹⁷

They also studied the carcinogenicity of tetrafluoroethylene in rats. Those exposed to tetrafluoroethylene had a significantly higher incidence of leukaemia than the control group.¹⁸

According to the IARC, tetrafluoroethylene is probably carcinogenic to humans.¹⁹

Let’s bring it back again. Humans working in factories making YOUR non-stick pan are exposed to carcinogenics.

YOUR non-stick pan, when overheated (which we’ve found out is HELLA easy to overheat), releases toxic fumes into the air that MOST LIKELY will kill your pet bird.

Those toxic fumes are released into the air that YOU also breath. Sure, neither Teflon, or their parent, or the government has studied how these fumes affect millions in their own kitchens and homes.

Does that mean that you still want to take the risk?

Just buy a damn cast iron pan, please.

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Chelsea
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Just a concerned citizen doing some research and continuously learning on how to be a better human here on Earth.