Teflon Canary In The Cookware Coal Mine

From the very early days of mining people knew dangerous gasses were sometimes released from digging.

In fact, these old-time miners developed a trick to detect if fumes were present, even if they couldn’t smell them. They’d carry cages with canaries in them down into the mines each day.

The reason? Canaries would keel over long before any human could detect the presence of toxic fumes. These canaries saved many human lives with their early warnings.

Even though modern mining methods detect gasses using sensitive instruments, canaries and similar birds are still able to tell us when something dangerous is happening.

Case in point: Teflon coated cookware.

Attentive bird owners know that they should never prepare food with Teflon and similarly coated cookware. The reason? If this cookware gets too hot, their birds will keel over and die.

There are actually two levels of toxic fumes that can come from these non-stick pots and pans. The first level of poisonous vapors gets released at between 350 and 450 degrees. It’s a vapor of PTFE (Polytetraflourethylene, aka Teflon) that can cause flu-like symptoms in humans. This is called Polymer fume fever, or “Teflon flu.”

That’s bad enough, but if the pan gets overheated above 450 degrees, the fumes change and can cause acute lung injury and affect white blood cells (leukocytes).

Fortunately, you don’t have to use these dangerous pots and pans. Good substitutes include stainless steel and cast iron cookware. Both are time-tested and work well. And if you don’t want to deal with excessive sticking of food in these pans, be sure to coat them with olive oil spray or a similar cooking oil before adding the food.


Canaries in the Kitchen: Teflon Toxicosis” from the Environmental Working Group (EWG)

PubMed.gov Article on Polymer Flume Fever

Athan, Mattie Sue, Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot, p. 126, Barron’s Educational Service, 1993

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