A friend recently asked my opinion about nonstick pans and their potential dangers. The issue has been in the news sporadically over the past several years, and I thought it was an excellent topic for this blog.
In past years, the concern was that non-stick coatings in cooking pans would eventually flake, and that the material would end up in our bodies. Warnings were released about the potential health hazards of ingesting nonstick coating material. We also were advised to avoid using metal utensils in the pans, which could damage the non-stick coating. The FDA’s response was that the pans were perfectly safe to use because the chemical coating is inert and passes right through our bodies.
Newer generations of nonstick pans have all but eliminated the peeling/flaking problem. Ceramic, stainless steel or titanium powders are now included in the mix making the coating much more durable. In addition, the coatings are applied much more thickly.
That said, DuPont has acknowledged that the fumes emitted by non-stick coatings can sicken people, an effect known as “polymer fume fever,” a temporary influenza-like syndrome. The effects on humans of long-term exposure are as of yet unknown.
DuPont has also acknowledged that the non-stick coatings begin to deteriorate at high temperatures (approximately 500 degrees F), but that those temperatures are higher than those typically used in cooking. The company has also admitted birds may be harmed by the fumes emitted by the heating of non-stick pans. Exposed birds have been known to hemorrhage in their lungs leading to death by suffocation.
On DuPont’s own website, the company carefully states that non-stick cookware “should not be allowed to reach extreme temperatures. Additionally, cooking should not be conducted in poorly ventilated areas.”
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has recommended that people phase out nonstick cookware. In a study conducted by the advocacy group it was found that non-stick pans could reach temperatures as high as 700 degrees Fahrenheit in 2 to 5 minutes, releasing more than a dozen harmful chemicals and gases, including two carcinogens.
Studies have shown that there are toxic chemicals from the use of non-stick pans that persist in the environment. A 2005 study by the EWG found perflouroocanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical commonly found in non-stick coatings and a known carcinogen, in the umbilical cord blood of newborns. A similar study by John Hopkins Medical Center in 2006 found PFOA present in the umbilical cord blood of 99% of the 300 infants tested. And in 2004, the chemical giant, 3M, shocked the rest of the industry by announcing they would no longer produce PFOA.
But we can’t place all the blame for PFOA’s existence on non-stick cookware. PFOA and similar chemicals are also commonly used in other applications, such as the non-stick coating on other household appliances like irons, in the coating of water- and stain-repellent clothing and furniture and in regular carpeting.
There is a non-stick coating on my panini maker and my waffle machine. I have gotten rid of all other non-stick pans. Instead, I primarily use cast iron. It is incredibly durable (incredibly heavy, too, depending on the size of the pan!) and resists sticking beautifully if properly maintained. The friend who asked me if she should get rid of all her non-stick pans also wondered if it was going to be an expensive question. Luckily, it’s not. Cast iron is unbelievably cheap, and the pans will last a lifetime. Note: my non-cast iron pots are anodized aluminum or steel.
My recommendation, which also happens to be the EWG’s:
- Start to phase out your non-stick cookware (and appliances).
- Use the pans on low or medium heat only.
- Never heat an empty pan on a burner.
- Always use an exhaust fan or open a window.
- Always carefully read and follow the manufacturer’s directions for use.