Researchers from the Global Center for Environmental Remediation and Flinders Institute of NanoScale Science and Engineering have found that broken coating on non-stick pans can release up to 2.3 million microplastics and nanoplastics when undergoing everyday use.
This comes after scientists from the University of Newcastle and Flinders University developed an approach using Raman imaging and algorithms that enabled the direct visualization and identification of micro and nano Teflon plastics.
Teflon is the brand name for the synthetic chemical polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which is waterproof and reduces friction on non-stick surfaces.
This new technique allowed researchers to measure the number of plastic particles that are potentially released by non-stick pans during cooking or washing as their coating degrades over time.
In an email to The Epoch Times, Newcastle University researcher Cheng Fang PhD said that although researchers were not sure what mechanism—heating, washing, or scratching—caused the release of the particles, when they imitated the natural cooking process on the newly bought pans. , they found just normal use was enough to generate a release of the particles.
Fang said that people might note that their non-stick pan doesn’t shine as much as when they bought it and has gradually become slightly yellow. This, he said, was an indicator that the pan might be scratched or aged and has the potential to release particles.
The research team showed that just one crack on the surface of a Teflon-coated pan could result in the release of around 9,100 plastic particles when used for cooking.
Why the Discovery is Concerning
In a Flinders University news release, Fang said that typically, the non-stick coating material, Teflon is a family member of PFAS or Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. PFAS are a group of manmade chemicals that are typically used in common household products such as cookware, fabric, and food packaging.
Fang said that since PFAS are a big concern, the Teflon microparticles that these pans are releasing are a potential health concern that he believes needs investigating because not enough is known about these emerging contaminants.
At present, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has said that although multiple health effects have been linked to PFAS, it’s difficult to define what potential health side effects PFAS may have on people. This is because PFAS are difficult to study, particularly due to the thousands of variations in PFAS chemicals.
Nevertheless, current research has found that PFAS exposure has been associated with altered metabolism and fertility, reduced fetal growth and immune system strength, and an increased risk of developing obesity and some cancers.
Additionally, it has also been found to have a casual relation with the onset of early menopause in women exposed to the contaminants.
“It gives us a strong warning that we must be careful about selecting and using cooking utensils to avoid food contamination,” said Prof. Youhong Tang, from the College of Science and Engineering at Flinders University.
“More research is recommended to address the risk assessment of the Teflon microplastics and nanoplastics, given that Teflon is a family member of PFAS.”
How Raman Imaging Can Count Particles
Fang said that the technique used to measure the number of plastic particles emitted employed a Raman spectrum that can be affected by many factors. These factors include Raman activity, the cross-section area of target molecule purity, laser power, integration time, scanning number, and other such things.
He said that once the size of the Teflon particle shrinks, the signal weakens anyway, and the particle becomes difficult to monitor.
“It gets even worse when the co-ingredients can yield strong background as interference,” he said.
Fang said that Raman could identify the plastic particles by way of a finger-print spectrum.
“Raman imaging can work akin to hyper spectrum to generate hundreds-to-thousands spectra as a matrix to enhance the signal-noise ratio.”
He said that with the help of algorithms, the weak signal coming out of the complex background could be extracted, and once the particle is confirmed, scanning electron microscopy (SEM) can help estimate the number of particles. SEM can accomplish this with the assistance of algorithms.
“We test 4 new pans, and 2 used pans. For new ones, we imitated the cooking process. For used ones, you can directly test them.”
Fang said that plans for a future study on plastic transfer to food from such pans are dependent on funding and support. He said that risk assessment should also be conducted.
Teflon Brand Cookware Doesn’t Use Teflon Chemical
Chemours, the company that owns the Teflon brand, communicated on its website that its non-stick pans don’t include PFOA or PFOS.
PFOA and PFOS are widely produced members of the PFAS group, which, in 2016, the National Toxicology Program concluded as an immune hazard to humans.
The company’s website said that their pans could withstand almost anything, even metal utensils. The website also said that scratches on the pan, although visually displeasing, do not mean that the pan has to be disposed of and that particles from their non-stick coatings aren’t harmful.
“It is not correct, nor appropriate, to use PTFE and Teflon™ interchangeably,” said Chemours Media in an email to The Epoch Times.
Chemours media said that there are a number of non-stick coatings available on the market that are not Teflon™ branded products.
“Teflon™ is a proprietary trademark owned by The Chemours Company; it is a brand—not a product or a material.”
“Accordingly, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is the correct material to name in relation to nonstick coatings for cookware and bakeware application produced by other manufacturers.”
Chemours media also said that the Teflon™ brand of nonstick coatings for cookware and bakeware is made without PFOA. They said that Chemours doesn’t use PFOA in any of its manufacturing processes to produce materials for use in nonstick coatings for cookware and bakeware.