Overheated Teflon can kill caged birds, but is there any safe way to use the plastic polymer that coats many non-stick pans?
When it comes to pots and pans, no single material is both a good conductor of heat and chemically nonreactive. Aluminum, cast iron, and stainless steel also require oils, which is possibly why chemists developed non-stick pots and pans coated with Teflon—also known as the scary-sounding polytetrafluoroethylene.
PTFE is a plastic polymer that was accidentally discovered in 1945 and patented by DuPont. As chemist Bob Kenworthy recently explained to Leonard Leopate, it's now found in Gore-Tex, the roof of the Metrodome, and coating pizza boxes. But Teflon also has a bad rap; its problems first came into the public consciousness when overheated pans starting killing household birds. While the polymer itself doesn’t appear to be a danger, the chemicals that form when it degrades may be harmful in birds and humans, resulting in symptons that have became known as “Teflon flu.”
The easiest way to solve the problem is avoiding Teflon entirely, but, barring that, Culinaut put together this informative infographic from the Environmental Working Group's data on the chemical that shows how various kinds of cooking affect the coating. In short, it's probably safer to bake than to broil.