Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

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This post is a first in our series, Beneath the Surface: What’s in Everyday Consumer Products? Articles in this series will examine how prevalent synthetic chemicals are in everyday products, and the consequences of their use to our health and our environment. 

Cast iron pans are an inexpensive alternative to nonstick coated cookware. Used for generations, cast iron offers even heating and durability and can also be heated safely to high temps.
Cast iron pans are an inexpensive alternative to nonstick coated cookware. Used for generations, cast iron offers even heating and durability and can also be heated safely to high temps.

My husband asked me two simple questions as he scrambled eggs in our 18-year old nonstick cooking pan: Are we eating this coating? Is it safe?  Better known as “Teflon cookware,” our nonstick pans were gifts from our 1997 nuptials. 

With billions of nonstick pots and pans in cupboards, I thought it would be a snap to find answers to my hubby’s simple questions.  It turned out to be mucho legwork to find answers, and in the end, I learned that nonstick pans are okay, as long as you don’t overheat the pan. To be safe, also keep your pet birds away. But, I’ll explain later why we tossed the aging nonstick cookware and pulled out our lonely cast iron pan. I’m guessing that’s exactly what cookware manufacturers didn’t want to happen.

What is the PFOA-free cookware that I see in stores?

Since its FDA approval in 1960, DuPont and other cookware firms have sold billions of pots and pans coated with the PTFE-based (polytetrafluoroethylene) nonstick surface. DuPont sells the nonstick coating under the Teflon brand. 

Before 2012, to help spread the PTFE-based nonstick coating evenly on cookware, nonstick cookware manufacturers used the chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). Once the nonstick coating was applied, the PFOA chemical was removed. 

However, PFOA was also used in many other applications from stain repellents and water-proofing material to food wrappers. PFOA was in microwave popcorn bag liners. It was everywhere.

And it’s in everyone. In the 1990s, outside research revealed that PFOA was found in most people’s blood; even in newborns’ blood. Scientific studies linked PFOA exposure to cancers and low birth weights in both animals and humans. I found 27 health studies just on the U.S. National Library of Medicines National Institutes of health database

Better yet, no one, even the EPA, knows how people are exposed to PFOA. After an EPA/DuPont lawsuit and fines, in which EPA charged DuPont with not reporting earlier health studies showing adverse affects, the feds and manufacturers agreed to voluntarily eliminate PFOA from emissions and products by 2015. According to the Centers for Disease Control, PFOA found in human blood dropped by 41 percent from 1999 to 2010.

With that, here are answers to hubby’s Teflon questions:

1. Yes. Our family has been ingesting PTFE-based nonstick chips for years. According to DuPont’s press relations group, “PTFE is biologically inert, it doesn’t dissolve in anything, and also, that it is a high-molecular-weight molecule, too big to get into the blood stream.” In other words, the chips pass right on through us.

2. DuPont, the FDA and the EPA state that nonstick coated cookware is safe to use if consumers follow directions. Most doctors and scientists also agree that PFOA exposure is probably not from nonstick cookware.

3. Pet birds and nonstick cookware don’t mix.  Nonstick coating product breaks down and produces fumes when heated to temperatures above 500˚F. There are documented reports of pet birds deaths after the bird inhaled the fumes when a nonstick pan was overheated. From DuPont’s web page: “Bird owners should be aware that there are potential dangers in the kitchen. Cooking fumes, smoke and odors that have little or no effect on people can seriously sicken and even kill some pet birds, often quite quickly.” According to this chart, the Environmental Working Group claims that bird deaths can occur at temps lower than the 500˚F.  Good to know. 

The good news is that oft-used nonstick cookware isn’t off-gassing an unhealthy chemical. Unless you’re a bird nearby the pan your owner left on the stove for six minutes on high. It’s also positive that once research surfaced about PFOA health hazards, our government took action to eliminate PFOA.  The EPA is also working to reduce PFOS, another similar and potentially dangerous chemical.

In preparing this series, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in synthetic chemical research. Holy moly. The chemicals associated with flame retardants, pesticides, anti-bacterial products, and fragrances, just to name a few, are found in most people’s blood. I’m glad to heave a sigh of relief that the pans we cook our food in aren’t also contributing to this potentially unhealthy chemical buildup in humans. 

In the end, our family switched from nonstick pans to cast iron cookware. We’ll take a pass on ingesting nonstick coating flakes. My family will also avoid the potentially harmful fumes that could kill my son’s birds, Nightlight and Tweety (pictured below).

Plus, something else has been bugging me about this topic. Logically I agree that nonstick cookware is safe, but my skeptical and more emotional side wonders why the FDA included the “however” line in their official nonstick safety claim below:

The FDA has approved the use of this material as safe for food-contact surfaces. The Agency has determined that neither the particles that may chip off nor the fumes given off at high temperatures pose a health hazard. However, because this nonstick finish may be scratched by sharp or rough-edged kitchen tools, the manufacturer’s recommendations should be consulted and the use of utensils that may scratch, abrasive scouring pads, or cleaners avoided.

Fumes released from overheated nonstick cookware can kill pet birds. The Consumer Product Safety Commission turned down Environmental Working Group's petition to add a warning label.
Fumes released from overheated nonstick cookware can kill pet birds. The Consumer Product Safety Commission turned down Environmental Working Group’s petition to add a warning label.

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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the monthly environmental GreenLaurel column. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting. She co-wrote the Abell Foundation Report detailing Maryland's dysfunctional energy supplier marketplace and the negative outcomes for low-income households.
Laurel Peltier
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  1. Thanks Laurel for another informative tip….think I will be off to the store today to find some cast iron pans!

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