An accidental invention and your pots and pans

How did the search for a new refrigerant become a popular kitchen item? It started back in the 1930’s when GM and DuPont went on a joint venture to create a new refrigerant. The result – freon. Encouraged by the finding, DuPont began independent research along the same line.

Dr. Roy Plunkett of DuPont got the brilliant idea to combine a gas (having an unpronounceable name) with hydrochloric acid. Bracing themselves, he and his assistant opened the valve to the tank: Nothing happened except white flakes fell out. Risking an explosion, Plunkett sawed the tank in half. On the inside was the slipperiest synthetic solid ever invented, teflon.

It’s first use was in gasket seals for the Manhattan Project. Yes, the one with the atomic bomb.

A French engineer obtained a small amount which he thought would be great to coat his fishing gear. “Honey, could you put some on my frying pans?” his wife asked. Leave it to a woman to find the practical application for it. Patented in 1954, by 1960 it was on store shelves.

Too bad for us.

I know, who wants to use a chisel to remove a previously beautiful omelet from a pan? Each time a teflon-coated pot or pan is heated to medium heat or higher, components on the surface break down and release a toxic chemical called PFOA (perflourooctanoic acid), which the EPA has named a “likely” human carcinogen. DuPont has been heavily fined for allegedly hiding data about this toxicity.

How pervasive is it? In a 2007 study, Johns Hopkins found PFOA in 99% of 300 umbilical cord blood samples. Even though it doesn’t admit to any dangers, DuPont has reduced the amount of PFOA’s by 97 percent and says it will discontinue its use by 2015.

There are other similar non-stick coatings on brands like Stainmaster, Duracote, Resistal, Autograph, T-Fal, and Calphalon that release up to six toxic gases when heated even at just 325 degrees. And remember that teflon can survive forever in your body and the environment. I also avoid aluminum because of its possible link to Alzheimers.

There are some safe alternatives to cook on. Remember “the wonderful iron skillet”? (See that post.) Stainless steel, ceramic and porcelain enameled ware are others. My current favorite is Green Pan Cookware. It’s nonstick coating is made from sand-derived silica. Target carries a complete line.

Don’t despair. There are safe alternatives for you and your family that don’t involve chisels and hammers to remove stuck-on food.


One thought on “An accidental invention and your pots and pans

  1. Great brands of cast-iron to look for include Wagner and Griswold (WW2 era and earlier, but still able to be found). Apparently the old cast-iron fares better than new.

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