Saving us from soaking, scraping and scrubbing, Teflon has been a lifesaver (or at least a hand-saver) for home cooks for the last 50 years. Comprised of a unique polymer that actually repels nearly every other material (the only known thing a gecko’s feet can’t stick to), the processes used to get this substance to adhere so well to a pan relies on sand, heat, a vacuum and sometimes even another chemical.
Although Teflon does not cause cancer, one of the chemicals used in making it, Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has been shown in laboratory studies to increase the risk of testicular, pancreatic and liver tumors in animals. In studies of humans, it has been shown that people who are exposed to PFOA in the workplace also have a greater risk of developing kidney, testicular and bladder cancers.
The Environmental Working Group warns that [polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)] coated pans release toxic fumes at high temperatures (over 350-400 F) that cause some people to develop flu-like symptoms. If you can’t ditch your non-stick pan, they recommend not preheating it, always using the exhaust fan and never putting a non-stick pan in an oven over 500 F.
The symptoms of Teflon, or polymer, fume fever appear within a few hours of exposure and mimic those of viral flu (such as chills, headache and fever). When the fumes are induced by exposure for a longer time, or are generated by higher temperatures, even pulmonary symptoms like chest tightness and cough may be seen. Notably, these fumes have been found to be fatal to birds, as their method of breathing allows even more toxins to enter their bodies.
All that said, because [polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)] is inert, ingesting flakes from your Teflon pan should have no ill-effects.