Toxic Chemicals Currently Slipping Off Nonstick Cookware

Toxic Chemicals Currently Slipping Off Nonstick Cookware

May 20, 2014

By Gigi Lee Chang

Once considered a kitchen miracle, traditional nonstick cookware (sold under brand names like Teflon and SilverStone) suffered a serious blow to its reputation in the mid-2000s. That’s when scientists discovered it emitted toxic fumes of a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) when heated.

While consumers can unfortunately never fully know what goes on behind the scenes when manufacturers and regulators get news like this, in the case of PFOA it appears the evidence was alarming enough for a really big response. Despite contributing $1 billion to the DuPont Company’s bottom line, they—along with seven other companies—agreed to remove PFOA from consumer products by 2015.  (There was also a settlement in 2005; DuPont settled with the EPA for $16.5 million for allegedly withholding PFOA health risk information.)

It’s not hard to see why: PFOA accumulates in our bodies and resists breaking down. Exposure to it has been linked to changes in fetal head size and lower birth weight as well as altered breast development, developmental effects, various cancers, liver harm, and immune and endocrine system damage. Nearly 100% of all Americans have PFOA in their bloodstreams. Makes you wonder how it ever got on the market in the first place. The good news is that bodily levels are falling as the phase-out takes effect.

So is the nonstick cookware found on kitchen supply store shelves safe at last? The answer is yes and no.

While PFOA is now (nearly or already) out of the cookware picture, a key nonstick chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) remains in many pans. PTFE fumes are also created when cookware containing it is heated to high temperatures, which has its own risks. Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program classify PTFE as a possible cause of cancer. Animal studies have also suggested it damages the kidneys, elevates cholesterol, causes thyroid disease, and reduces fertility. Not what you want with your eggs.

What’s a family to use? Don’t keep your old nonstick and only heat it to low temperatures; scratched surfaces can also release its chemical components into your food. These pans do scratch easily. Instead, look for cookware labeled “PTFE-free.” You can ignore “PFOA-free” labels; at this point its been removed from virtually all cookware. There are a number of new “green” nonstick pans on the market. Buyers beware. You have to find out what the material is, and what is being used to replace the PFOA. If this information is proprietary, leave that pan on the store shelf! Some of these are ceramic. This can be a good choice, though there is a potential some imported versions could contain lead and cadmium. There have been some anecdotal reports that the new pans aren’t very durable, too.

As it turns out, the safest cookware options are also tried and true: cast iron, enamel coated cast iron, and stainless steel. You may need to add a little fat to the pan to keep your food from sticking. But by now the choice between olive oil vs. PFOA, PTFE, or unknown replacement chemicals should be amply clear.

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Check out our Healthy Kitchen Guide for more information.