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TeflonTM poisoning: The silent killer

by Darrel K. Styles, DVM

The topic of Teflon poisoning seems to come up at this time of year when the house is tightly closed for winter and circulation indoors is poor. Teflon poisoning, or more correctly polytetrafluoroethlyene (PTFE) intoxication, is a rapid and lethal gaseous intoxication of all species of birds.

PTFE toxicity can occur anytime of year, and it’s consequences are devastating. The only clinical signs of illness are birds starting to drop off their perches or displaying severe respiratory distress such as open-mouthed breathing, tail-bobbing, or even audible respiratory rales (raspy breathing sounds) followed quickly by death.

The cause of PTFE toxicity is gaseous emission of the material from nonstick cookware. The brand of cookware does not have to be Teflon. Any brand of Teflon-type non-stick cookware, such as Silverstone™, can result in intoxication. Also, cookware is not an exclusive culprit; this toxicosis has been caused by heat lamps coated with Teflon backing as well as range-burner or eye backings that are coated with the substance.

PTFE toxicity occurs because the coating is overheated. This usually is a result of forgetting that the cookware is on the stove and leaving it empty or letting the contents overheat and dry. The excessive heat causes Teflon coating to enter a gaseous state. For humans and other mammals, the PTFE gas is innocuous in the concentrations reached. However, birds are exquisitely sensitive to the gas and are quickly overcome by the vapor.

Some cases of mammalian, including human, intoxications occurred back in the early days of the products, but better chemical bonding processes reduced gaseous emissions. However, this did not eliminate all emissions when the substance overheats. And, the chances of gaseous emission increase as the cookware ages or undergoes repeated use or is continuously overheated.

The gas travels rapidly and birds begin to die or become ill in order of their proximity to the gas source. It is as if a bomb exploded and those closest to the blast receive the brunt of the injury; this is the pattern that PTFE displays. Again, the signs observed are acute death or respiratory distress which may be quickly followed by death. Again, all types of birds are affected, from finches and canaries to macaws and Amazons. The smaller the bird, the less gas required to manifest the effect, so small birds are at greatest risk. If the bird is exposed and manages to survive, then medical attention will be required to ensure the bird’s continued survival. (If you should have any respiratory signs after being exposed to PTFE gas, call your physician immediately.)

If you suspect an intoxication is in progress, you can take steps to minimize the damage. First, turn off the heat, take the cookware outside, and place it on a nonflammable surface, such as concrete, and away from children and pets. This will remove the source of gas. Next, open windows to dilute the gas and increase ventilation. If you have exhaust fans or an attic fan, turn them on. Then, take birds that are not displaying signs far from the source or outdoors if possible. (It is usually too late for those birds that are gasping, so your triage is to ensure the living are not injured.) Finally, attend to those birds in respiratory distress by taking them to your avian veterinarian as quickly as possible.

The pathology that PTFE gas causes is severe edematous pneumonia. This means that the bird’s lungs fill with body fluid, because the blood capillaries in the lungs leak blood fluids into the lung airways. Essentially, the bird drowns in its own body fluid.

If the bird is showing respiratory distress, get to a veterinarian immediately. The only medical recourse your vet may have is to place the bird in an oxygen cage, administer antibiotics and mild diuretics to relieve the amount of fluid in the lungs, and hope for the best. Some birds survive but many do not.

The best course is prevention. To avoid this catastrophe, be careful of your Teflon-coated surfaces. Some vets and aviculturists advocate eliminating the cookware from the home. I think this is a bit extreme, but I advise using some common sense and taking precautions.

First, I recommend not keeping birds in the kitchen for several reasons. Not only are they subject to PTFE toxicity, but I have seen some severely burned birds who were much too curious around mealtime and investigated the fried chicken too closely while it was still in the pan. Second, watch your Teflon; don’t leave the cookware unattended. As long as the material is not overheated, it is generally safe to use. When the cookware begins to age or is damaged, dispose of it. We all have those pans in which the non-stick surface now sticks. Just get rid of it. (Besides, it’s a pain to have to scrub those pans, which just damages the surface more.) Do not use Teflon-coated heat lamps for any reason; it just isn’t worth the risk. These lamps generally will state that they are coated with Teflon on the label. They cannot be relied upon to maintain a nongaseous state.

Finally, if you suspect a pan has overheated, but your birds show no immediate signs, remove them from the area and monitor them over the next 4 hours. If no signs appear, then you can feel relatively comfortable about averting disaster, and a vet may not be necessary.


Dupont's Teflon May Be Poisoning Us All
Teflon Chemical's Potential Risk Cited

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page A04

The Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday that low-level exposure
to perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical used to make Teflon, could pose "a
potential risk of developmental and other adverse effects" on human health.

The statement, a preliminary assessment of the potential risks associated
with the processing agent known as PFOA or C-8, is significant because the
agency's final conclusion could determine whether the government decides to
regulate the chemical. The EPA is seeking as much as $300 million in fines
from chemical giant DuPont Co., which uses C-8 to produce nonstick surfaces
and materials, for failing to report its studies of the possible dangers
linked to the processing agent.

The EPA report, which is based on animal studies, said there is some
evidence C-8 can cause cancer and immune deficiencies in rats, but it does
not conclude whether these problems could surface in workers or those who
drink C-8 contaminated water.

The EPA also found that the chemical could boost people's levels of
cholesterol and fats called triglycerides, which might increase the
likelihood of a heart attack or stroke. This conclusion mirrors the finding
of a study DuPont issued on Tuesday. That study found no health risks
associated with C-8 but identified elevated cholesterol and triglyceride
levels in workers exposed to the chemical.

The firm, which is fighting the fine on the grounds that it has submitted
all the legally required reports to the EPA, maintains that the chemical
does not pose a health risk, and that any increased cholesterol or
triglyceride rates will not occur in the general population because of the
public's low levels of exposure.

The EPA sent its draft assessment to a scientific advisory board for
review. Agency spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said it may take a year for
officials to issue a final C-8 assessment.

"We've not offered any determination of risks," said Charles M. Auer,
director of the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. "We are
asking the advice of science advisory board to assist in making those kind
of scientific judgments."

DuPont welcomed the assessment, saying the company "is committed to
continue working with the regulatory and scientific communities and others
in industry to gain additional understanding of [perfluorooctanoic acid] to
assure protection of public health, safety and the environment."

But officials at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization
that first raised questions about possible health risks of C-8, said
ordinary Americans are vulnerable and the federal government has failed to
fully investigate the issue.

The group's president, Kenneth A. Cook, questioned why the agency did not
consider whether humans might be at higher risk of testicular, pancreatic
and other cancers that have been linked to the chemical in animal studies.

"There's a big difference between sound science and tilted science, and at
every turn in this important process, EPA officials favored DuPont," Cook
said. "We don't know if DuPont lobbyists played a role or if these were just
agency mistakes. But for those who were expecting a thorough and fair
review, this is a huge disappointment."

Next month, DuPont will finalize a settlement for as much as $343 million of
a class-action lawsuit accusing it of allowing C-8 to contaminate drinking
water in Ohio and West Virginia. An administrative law judge, who held a
hearing last month on whether DuPont should pay for failing to fully notify
the EPA about studies it had conducted on the chemical, has yet to issue a

2005 The Washington Post Company


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