Non-stick coatings on pots and pans are made from the plastic polymer polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Teflon (made by Dupont) has become the generic name, but there are other manufacturers too. When heated to high temperature the coating can vaporize, giving off odorless but toxic fumes.
Teflon Flu warning: The following excerpts are copied verbatim from the Dupont web site. This warning describes both precautions that should be taken to avoid contact with skin during the manufacturing process and an illness that can result from inhalation of heated Teflon vapors from cookware. Note that the warning is only on the Dupont web site, not on their cookware.
"Before using Teflon AF, read the Material Safety Data Sheet and the detailed information in the "Guide to the Safe Handling of Fluoropolymer Resin.……. hexafluoroacetone (HFA). Because HFA hydrates are readily absorbed through the skin, it is necessary to avoid skin contact with the resin during processing. Dupont recommends the used of protective gloves when handling resin during manufacturing operations..…………..Open and use containers only in well-ventilated areas using local exhaust ventilation. Vapors and fumes liberated during hot processing, or from smoking tobacco or cigarettes contaminated with Teflon or Tefzel fluoropolymer resins, may cause flu-like symptoms (chills, fever, sore throat) that may not occur until several hours after exposure and that typically pass within about 36 to 48 hours……"
There are many reports of deaths in canaries, parrots and other birds from exposure to over-heated Teflon because of their highly sensitive respiratory systems. Humans can experience flu-like symptoms for a few days from breathing Teflon vapors. Teflon production uses ammonium perfluorooctanoate (or C-8) that has been linked to cancer and organ damage in lab animals. C-8 is now pervasive in human blood samples with some of the highest levels measured in children. The EPA is currently reviewing the safety of Teflon products.(59)
A very recent study documented widespread human contamination by a chemical involved in making Teflon. Some people sampled in the U.S. were among those with the highest blood levels. The chemical (which is in a class of highly persistent chemicals called perfluorochemicals) is the focus of legal proceedings against Dupont for contamination of drinking water in the Ohio River Valley.(77)