PROBLEM: Nonstick Cookware
Nonstick cookware, such as DuPont’s Teflon® pots and pans, offer a great convenience for the cook who is tired of soaping and scrubbing after every meal. But most nonstick cookware is coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which, when heated to 680°F on a regular electric stove, can release at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, two global pollutants, and a chemical that is known to be lethal to humans.1 Some toxic particles are released at temperatures as low as 464°F.2 These temperatures and higher can be easily reached whenever you preheat your pan on a high setting.
These toxins are particularly harmful to birds, and many pet owners have lost their birds when the fumes from overheated PTFE caused their sensitive lungs to hemorrhage and fill with fluid. When exposed to overheated nonstick cookware, human beings can contract “polymer fume fever,” which results in flu-like symptoms.3 The most well-known of these dangerous toxins is perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which has caused cancer, immune system damage, and death in laboratory animals.4 Close to 95 percent of Americans have detectable amounts of PFOA in their blood,5 so it has definitely become prevalent. DuPont discovered that PFOA can be transferred from human mothers to their unborn fetuses, yet purposefully concealed the information from the public.6
And PTFE can be found in more than just pots and pans—it’s in numerous products such as paint, stain-resistant carpet, electric razors, and even the lining of microwavable popcorn bags.
SOLUTION: Cast Iron and Stainless Steel
DuPont has already promised to reduce the amount of PFOA in their cookware by 2015, but in the meantime you’ll have to be careful about how you treat your nonstick pots and pans. Use them only for foods cooked on low or medium heat, and never pre-heat an empty nonstick pan. Don’t use metal utensils with nonstick pans, because they can scratch the surface. Replace your cookware as soon as it becomes scratched or starts to flake. If you have a pet bird, keep it as far away from the kitchen as possible.
Stainless steel pots and pans won’t release any toxins and are often less expensive than those with nonstick coatings. The major drawback is that you’ll have to do a little extra scrubbing to get them clean.
A cast iron skillet is a great nonstick option. It requires a little extra care; when you first buy it you’ll have to season it, which means coating it in a light layer of vegetable oil or vegetable shortening and baking it in the oven for about an hour. Once this is done, however, the skillet will have nonstick properties for several uses. Whenever the skillet begins to lose its effectiveness, just season it again.
There are some “green” nonstick pans available on the market. These are usually made from natural products such as ceramic and sand and they contain no PTFE.
1 Jane Houlihan, Kris Thayer, Jennifer Klein, “EWG finds heated Teflon pans can turn toxic faster than DuPont claims,” Environmental Working Group, May 2003, http://www.ewg.org/reports/toxicteflon (accessed January 7, 2011).
4 “Is Teflon Risky?” TIME, June 11, 2006, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1200779,00.html (accessed January 10, 2010).
6 “Failure to Report Chemical Risks Can Result in Major Fines,” Enforcement Alert 9, no. 4 (2008) http://www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/newsletters/civil/enfalert/8e-tsca-0807.pdf (accessed January 7, 2011).