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Pyrex Panic: Shrapnel in the Kitchen

Flying crockery upsets dinner plans

Nothing's worse than being betrayed by an old friend. So Molly of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., was shattered when her trusted Pyrex baking dish blew.

"I have used Pyrex and Corning Ware for all my 33 years of married life and never had a problem until last evening," Molly wrote us last October. "I had four people for dinner, had just taken a Pyrex baking dish from the oven and placed on top of stove when it exploded, sending glass all over."

Molly's dinner was ruined and there were burn marks on the carpet, where the shards of hot glass landed but, fortunately, no one was injured.

Not everyone is so lucky. Many of the consumers we've heard from, like Dave of Fort Smith, Ark., have become adept at picking shards of glass out of their feet and fingers. Dave was washing a Pyrex cooking dish in soapy water when he noticed something strange.

"My left hand index finger was starting to have a bad burning sensation. I continued on washing, not realizing that there was about an 3/4-inch-long piece of Pyrex glass stuck in my left index finger," Dave wrote, adding: "I mean stuck, stuck."

"I am not a pro with pulling sharp objects out of myself. I finally after watching the blood spurt out, told myself I was going to have to pull the glass out of my finger and soon," Dave recalled. "I gave it a real good tug and got it out, then the bleeding started, and continued for at least 30 minutes."

Canaries in a Cage

Unfortunately, some consumer grievances fall through the cracks simply because they don't happen very often or don't sound very serious. So we're not sure whether Pyrex dishes have been acting like incendiary devices for decades or whether it's a recent phenomenon that we've just become aware of.

We first heard of the problem on Feb. 18, 2003, when Manny of Bethel, Conn., filed this report: "While taking a casserole out of my oven at 375, the casserole was placed on range to cool and exploded."

Like a tree that falls when no one is nearby, Manny's report went unnoticed. It wasn't until the dish complaints started piling up in 2005 that we noticed Manny's.

Our curiosity aroused, we began looking through some of the other complaints late last year and, with the holiday baking season fast approaching, wrote a short story that was published on our site Dec. 1, 2005.

"Food seems to go hand in hand with the holiday season, but some cooks using recently purchased glass Pyrex baking dishes have reported nasty surprises. The dishes mostly the 13-by-9-inch baking dish have shattered unexpectedly," the story read.

As such things go, it seemed innocuous enough. After all, unlike the GE Microwave, it had not set fire to anyone's kitchen counter. Nor had it flooded anyone's home, unlike certain Kohler toilets we could think of.

Pyrex Responds

But the story did not go unnoticed. Just a few days later, we received a FedEx letter from World Kitchen, a Reston, Va., company that now owns CorningWare and Pyrex, as well as several other household names.

"This letter is in response to your December 1 article entitled 'Bakers Beware: Shattering Pyrex Pans,' which includes claims that PYREX glass bakeware ... breaks in a manner they deem to be 'exploding,' huffed Douglas S. Arnold, a vice president of World Kitchen.

Deeply hurt by the consumers' cruel cuts, Arnold continued: "We want to assure you that neither PYREX glass bakeware nor other glass bakeware 'explodes.' Glass does not explode but it can break. As glass bonds break, people may hear a noise and be surprised."

Like Dave, Gayleen of Sheldon, Ill., didn't just hear a noise.

"I was unloading my dishwasher. It had run the night before, so the contents were cool," Gayleen wrote. "A Pyrex 9x13-inch dish exploded in my hands before I got it stored in my cabinet. I am still picking glass shards out of my hands. It did not appear cracked or defective before this."

But Arnold would no doubt beg to differ with Gayleen.

"When glass breaks, it may appear instantaneous, and may be described with violent words such as 'exploded' or 'disintegrated.' Instead of disintegrating, however, a glass failure generates from one or more fractures, each of which begins at a particular site and grows from there."

Isn't this like describing an airliner crash as an "inadvertent impact with terrain?" It may sound better but the end result is the same -- in the case of Pyrex, ruined food and little bits of glass in places they shouldn't be, like Kelly's feet.

Kelly, of Bishop, Ga., wrote to us in December: "I purchased a 13x9 Pyrex baking dish as part of a 4-piece set from my local Wal-Mart. The very next day I used the dish to cook chicken and stuffing at 375 degrees. I took the dish out and set it on a towel on top of my counter. The dish promptly exploded, sending shards all over my kitchen."

The result: "A ruined dinner, glass shards all over my kitchen floor and in the bottoms of my feet. My faith in Pyrex, a brand I trusted for years, has also been shattered."

Oh, and Kelly added this comment: "World Kitchen is lucky some poor cook hasn't yet been blinded by flying shards."

We hope Kelly's statement that no one has been blinded by exploding -- ooops, breaking -- bakeware is true, though just because something hasn't been reported doesn't mean it hasn't happened.

By the same token, when something is reported often enough, it's logical to think that it has, indeed, happened.

When, let's say, numerous consumers who do not know each other, who live in different parts of the country and who have no apparent reason to engage in an elaborate conspiracy to bring down Pyrex report something, there is good reason to believe that it probably happened pretty much as they described it, no?

In fact, despite Arnold's desire to dismiss alarmist reports from glassware amateurs, consumers are not the only ones who use the word "explode" to describe what occasionally happens to Pyrex.

Careful Chefs

"What's not to like? Just the occasional explosion, a manageable risk as long as you take precautions," says a Cooks Illustrated article on baking. The article devotes a rather fully-baked paragraph to the subject:

When Pyrex Explodes
Pyrex pie plates and baking dishes are standard issue in the test kitchen, but over the years weve learned that they are prone to shattering when exposed to sudden and extreme temperature changes. Naturally, this prohibits their use under a broiler or over direct stovetop heat, but the tempered glass bakeware is also vulnerable to sudden drops in temperature, known in the industry as downshock. Downshock would result from adding cold liquid to a hot Pyrex dish or from placing a hot dish directly on a cold or wet surface. It is considered safe, however, to transfer a Pyrex dish directly from the refrigerator or freezer to a hot oven, provided it has been properly preheated -- some ovens use the broiler element to heat up to the desired temperature.

No less an authority than Wikipedia notes:

A Pyrex pie plate is almost the American standard pie dish. Pyrex measuring cups, which featured painted-on markings illustrating graduated measurements, are also widely used in American kitchens. Recent reports suggest that, notwithstanding the claims made for Pyrex, the glassware can shatter violently and unexpectedly, even when used in accordance with manufacturers instructions. Claims have been made of severe personal injury during these events.

There's even a book about the phenomenon. "Failure Analysis of Brittle Materials," published in 1990, is considered the standard reference in the field. The author is the late Dr. Van Derck Frechette, professor emeritus of ceramic science in the School of Ceramic Engineering and Materials Science at Alfred University.

Frechette was a research physicist at Corning Glass Works from 1942-44, when he returned to Alfred to begin a more than 40-year career as a teacher and researcher. He achieved international renown for himself, and for Alfred, in the field of fractography (fracture analysis of glass and ceramic materials). The publisher, Wiley, describes Frechette's work as "a conscious effort on the part of the author to detail the 'life' of a crack, from its inception, through its growth, to its culmination."

Paranoid Lawyers

How to explain Vice President Arnold's head-in-the-sand approach to exploding cookware? For public consumption, he represents the standard corporate point of view, which goes something like this: There are no known defects in our products. If we knew of defects in our products and did not fix them, we would be liable for damages or injuries resulting from their use. Therefore, we don't know of any such defects.

No one is better at this than Ford. To this day, Ford does not know of failing head gaskets in Windstar engines, spontaneously-combusting F-150 pickups or sparkplug-spitting Expeditions, to name just a few things it claims it has hardly ever heard of.

The second verse of the standard corporate litany always goes something like this: If our products are exploding, catching fire, melting down or irradiating bystanders, it is obviously due to operator error since there are no known defects in our products. If there were known defects, we would have ... etc.

It doesn't take Arnold long to get to this verse.

Pyrex Safety Instructions
"It is also important to recognize that improper use of any glass bakeware can cause it to break," he says. "The most common forms of breakage that we see are caused by mechanical impact (dropping the glass or dropping something into the glass) and termal downshock (sudden changes in temperature)."

"We also see instances of breakage after use on the stove top or under a broiler (despite clear warnings against such use, including on our bakeware. The PYREX glass bakeware Safety and Usage instructions contains Dos and Don'ts that warn against improper uses that may damage the product."

The Safety and Usage instructions are printed in what appears to be 8-point type on a package insert that Arnold thoughtfully sent us.

The Pyrex Web site, meanwhile, trumpets a number of benefits, including: "PYREX glassware products can go directly from refrigerator or freezer to a microwave, convection, or preheated conventional oven." It also provides information on such compelling topics as "What's New," "Buy Now" and "Getting Married" but we could not find, anywhere on the site, even a trace of the Safety and Usage instructions Arnold cautions consumers to read carefully.

What To Do?

So what's a consumer to do? Of course, you should follow the safety instructions included with every device but the evidence suggests that sometimes things just happen. Your truck might catch fire. Your toilet might turn into a fountain. Your 13x9 Pyrex baking dish might erupt in your face.

While it's not possible to guard against every risk, it's worth keeping possible adverse outcomes in the back of your mind and acting accordingly. In other words: When using Pyrex dishes, always be aware that, even if you follow all the rules, the thing may come apart in your hands or blow up while sitting on the kitchen counter. Of course, lots of other things can happen in the kitchen too, so it's a good idea to take some simple precautions:

Wear oven gloves; you won't burn yourself and if the dish blows up, you're less likely to be cut;

? Wear shoes. Being pregnant is fine but being barefoot in the kitchen is out;

Keep the dish away from your face. You avert your face when connecting jumper cables to your battery don't you? (You don't? You should.)

? Keep kids and dogs away from the cooking area;

Set bakeware dishes down gently. Banging them around greatly increases the chances of trouble;

Preheat your oven before putting anything in it. Some ovens use the top heating elements (the "broil" elements) during the preheat cycle, which can cause trouble if you put a cold bakeware dish in there;

Don't put objects on the top of the stove unless you intend to cook them. Even if the burners aren't on, heat can be vented from the oven. And, most important ...

Don't let your kids undertake big baking, roasting or frying projects unsupervised. The kitchen is a dangerous place.

Oh, and our advice for Vice President Arnold? Spend a little less time on semantics and give a little more prominence to the safety warnings you now so skillfully downplay.

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