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Question: I've heard that using Teflon pans can cause cancer. Is this true?

Answer: That's a common concern, but there's no need to worry if you use your pans properly. The link between Teflon cookware and cancer risk stems from the way non-stick cookware is manufactured.

One of the chemicals used to make Teflon and other non-stick coatings is called perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA. The chemical PFOA has been shown to increase the risk of certain tumours in lab rats. However, there's little data about its ability to increase cancer risk in people. When it comes to Teflon pots and pans, there's essentially no PFOA left on the cookware after it's manufactured. So Teflon itself is not suspected to cause cancer.

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Although low levels of PFOA occur in most people's blood questions remain how it got there. PFOA has been found in the air and water around manufacturing plants. It's also used to make electrical wiring, automotive parts, stain-resistant clothing, drapery and microwave popcorn bags. In 2006, the chemical industry voluntarily agreed to reduce and eventually eliminate the release of PFOA into the environment and its use in products by 2015.

That said, an empty non-stick pan can be risky if it gets too hot. Heating a Teflon pan to 500 degrees F or higher, as can happen if you leave an empty pan on high heat by accident, can result in the release of toxic fumes that cause flu-like condition in humans. (These fumes can be fatal to birds.) Food or liquid in the pan prevents a non-stick coating from overheating.

Bottom line: Don't leave an empty non-stick pan to heat on a burner and avoid using non-stick pans for broiling, which heats to a higher temperature. Boiling, baking and frying temperatures are safe.

Send dietitian Leslie Beck your questions at dietitian@globeandmail.com . She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on the Globe website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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