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Cooking with non-stick cookware doesn't have to be stressful—or carcinogenic.
Have you ever wondered if non-stick frying pans are safe? What’s up with all the stuff that chips off—does it go into our food? Is it okay if the Teflon is just scratched? What if my roommate or child uses the metal spatula instead of the plastic one? Do I need to throw out the pan?
These are the questions that enter my mind as I think about non-stick cookware—the stress, the drama, the uncertainty.
As you can expect, non-stick cookware is a controversial topic filled with conflicting research and debate among the companies that manufacture them, government institutions and watchdog groups. And at the heart of the debate are PTFE and PFOA.
Teflon is a type of PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene)—a synthetic material that, studies show, is likely carcinogenic to humans and has been shown to affect the health of animals. Similarly, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) is used in the manufacturing of Teflon and is off-gassed when Teflon is heated.
According to tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group, when cookware coated with Teflon and other non-stick surfaces was heated on a conventional stovetop for two to five minutes, the heat exceeded temperatures at which the coating cracked, emitting toxic particles and gases linked to hundreds of pet bird deaths and polymer fume fever, a.k.a. Teflon flu.
As I began to look into this issue a bit further, it became evident that there are two main perspectives: the US Environmental Protection Agency, who in 2005 claimed that PFOA is likely carcinogenic; and DuPont, the only company in the US producing PFOA. The latter contends that Teflon is safe as long as it’s not heated above 660° F (349° C), “a temperature higher than the smoke point of most conventional cooking oils,” the company says.
However, 2005 testing determined that temperatures above 721° F (382° C) may be reached within three minutes on a conventional stove top, meaning that Teflon is highly prone to deterioration—and you could be inhaling 11 toxic gasses, including a chemical warfare agent, within the course of preparing dinner. For violations under the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, DuPont has since agreed to pay the EPA $10.25 million in civil penalties and has committed to performing “supplemental environmental projects” worth $6.25 million. This was the largest civil administrative penalty the EPA has ever obtained under any federal environmental statute.
While the EPA continues to study the effects of PFOA exposure on humans and the environment, and is apparently working to eliminate PFOA use by 2015, it still has not called for consumers to discontinue using products containing PTEF in the meantime.
That’s all well and good, but next time I’m cooking up a stir-fry, I just want something that works and is not going to kill me. (Okay, a touch dramatic, but you get my point…)
So let’s make things easy here, kids, and follow a path of precaution: If it seems kind of shady, take the high road.
We are lucky—there are alternatives; there are non-stick products that don’t contain PFOA and some made without PTFE as well, so why mess around?
It may just be time to chuck that scratched Teflon fry pan you scored at that garage sale years back and shell out a bit extra for one of these non-toxic, eco-friendly alternatives.
Click to read the review:
> Scanpan cookware compromise
> Go old school with cast iron
> Expert chefs choose stainless steel
My intention here isn’t to freak you out. If you use non-stick Teflon cookware, it’s not supposed to release PTFE if used under recommended conditions—like not heating to excessive temperatures above 349° C (660° F). Plus, consider that 96 percent of the population has PFOA in their blood, and we’re not all dropping like stones.
High quality cookware isn’t cheap. The small 8” GreenPans start at $69, Scanpan at $79 and both go up from there into the $200-plus range. But you get what you pay for—and besides even-cooking temperature, long-lasting products that feel good, and the ability to cook a mean-ass frittata, using products like these also takes some stress out of our already hectic and crazy lives in this wild world.
So f#@k carcinogens—eat your cage-free, hormone-free fried eggs stress free!
Read the Environmental Working Group’s 13-part series on Toxic Teflon and get more tips on safer cookware.
Plus, check out a history and a background on the science of non-stick cookware by HowStuffWorks: How Nonstick Cookware Works.