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Does Teflon cause cancer?

Non-stick pan
PTFE is resilient, resistant to heat, and nothing sticks to it. You know it as Teflon. Over the years, concerns have been raised about how PTFE may affect human health.

You may not know how to pronounce polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), but you may appreciate it when your eggs or pancakes slide easily out of your frying pan in the morning. PTFE is a polymer comprised of carbon and fluorine. It’s remarkably resilient and incredibly resistant to heat, and virtually nothing sticks to it. You know it as TeflonTM.

Over the years, concerns have been raised about how PTFE may affect human health. Specifically: Does PTFE cause cancer? The short answer, according to the experts, is no. Ask about a substance used to make PTFE, and the answer becomes a bit more complex.

How did Teflon get its start?

Teflon was discovered by accident in 1938 by Dupont chemist Roy J. Plunkett, who was working with the chemical tetrafluoroethylene. During one of his experiments, the substance formed a white, waxy powder called polytetrafluoroethylene—PTFE. By 1945, the name Teflon was registered, and a year later, the first Teflon products were on the market.

Teflon may be found in the coating inside your frying pan. But it’s also used to make automotive parts, tools and light bulbs. PTFE was used to coat equipment that processed uranium hexafluoride, a chemical used in the first atomic bomb.

What are the health concerns with Teflon?

Technically, there are no health concerns with Teflon, specifically. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), “there are no proven risks to humans from using cookware coated with Teflon (or other non-stick surfaces).”

But some experts are concerned about the health effects of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical that’s been used in the production of Teflon in the past. PFOA is one of thousands of chemicals in a family called polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS) that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says “can lead to adverse health outcomes” in humans if consumed or absorbed. PFAS chemicals can stay in the body and accumulate over time. “Studies indicate that PFOA … can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animal studies,” the EPA says.

PFOA hasn’t been used in the production of Teflon since 2013. Still, health agencies say people can be exposed to it and other PFAS chemicals from drinking contaminated water, eating fish pulled from contaminated water or by using consumer goods packaged in the chemicals.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), PFAS accumulations in the body may lead to several health concerns, including:

  • Increased cholesterol
  • Low-birth weights in infants
  • Decreased vaccine responses
  • High blood pressure
  • Higher risk of certain cancers

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

The health agencies’ concerns about PFOA have been supported by multiple studies. One study among lab animals associated PFOA with liver cancer, testicular cancer and pancreatic cancer. Studies have also been conducted on humans. A study of workers exposed to PFOA at a DuPont plant found a significant association between kidney cancer death and the presence of PFOA in the blood of those who died.

A study conducted in West Virginia found a probable link between exposure to PFOA and testicular cancer and kidney cancer, but it didn’t find links to other cancer types. The study was conducted as part of a settlement agreement in a class action lawsuit regarding the release of PFOA from a DuPont plant.

What can you do?

It’s important to note that PFOA exists in various levels in almost everyone’s blood. The CDC suggests that people talk to their doctor if they’re concerned that they’ve been exposed to high levels of PFOA or other PFAS chemicals.  

The good news is that the use of PFOA has declined since 2002, which, according to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, has led to a decline in PFOA levels among humans. The presence of PFOA in human blood declined by more than 60 percent from 1999 to 2014, according to the federal agency.

While newer Teflon pans are PFOA-free, you may consider alternatives for your kitchen, including:

  • Cast iron, which is also available in antique and enameled versions
  • Stainless steel, which is long-lasting and strong, like case iron (though it’s recommended that you use oil or another fat since these pans don’t have non-stick surfaces
  • Carbon steel, which also requires the use of oil or another fat for cooking
  • Ceramic and stoneware, which is made from clay, quartz and sand

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