The chemical polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), with nonstick properties, was discovered accidentally in 1938 by a DuPont chemist working with refrigerant gases. Shortly after, PTFE (dubbed Teflon) appeared as a coating on cookware and other products, marking the beginning of the nonstick revolution.
Metal pots and pans coated with this slippery material are lauded for their performance in the kitchen, but many consumers remain concerned about possible health consequences from ingesting PTFE or inhaling the fumes. Others focus on environmental issues. Are such worries warranted? (Note: Though Teflon is the brand name for the nonstick coating made from PTFE that many companies use in their cookware, other companies make their own PTFE or PTFE-based coatings. Here we will use PTFE to refer to any of these coatings.)
Cooking with chemicals
Over the decades, it’s been reported that the fumes that result from heating these pots and pans to very high temperatures (over 660°F) could cause temporary coughing, fever, and a sore throat—what’s been referred to as “Teflon flu” (or medically as polymer fume fever). The fumes have also been responsible for killing many pet birds, which have very sensitive respiratory tracts. Though temperatures can reach up to 500°F or so under normal cooking conditions, the problem occurs mostly when a pan, especially one without any food in it, is left unattended on the stove, since that can greatly increase the temperature.
There’s no evidence, however, that ingesting any PTFE flakes that might have degraded from the pan’s surface over time poses any health risk, and the American Cancer Society notes that “Teflon itself is not suspected of causing cancer.” That makes sense, considering that PTFE is an inert substance, which means it doesn’t react with other chemicals.
In more recent years, greater concern has been raised about the related compound perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), used in the manufacturing of PTFE coatings—that repeated use of the cookware could result in this chemical leaching into food. PFOA has been linked with various cancers (including testicular and kidney) and thyroid disease, and it might have a toxic effect on reproductive hormones. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies it as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” based on limited evidence.
But the coatings contain very little or no PFOA, according to the American Cancer Society, since the chemical is burned off during the manufacturing process. And as of the end of 2015, PFOA is no longer being used in cookware production (with a few exceptions, it is no longer being used at all in the U.S.). Still, PFOA persists in the environment, including some drinking water, and in our bodies.
As an alternative to PFOA, which is a long-chain perfluorinated compound, manufacturers are using short-chain perfluorinated compounds. But as is often the case when companies replace one chemical with another, there’s no evidence that the new ones are any safer. In a 2014 paper in Chemosphere, scientists from Boston University and several European institutions expressed concern that little is known about the toxicological profile of these short-chain fluorochemicals, and that these chemicals also can accumulate in the environment and in the human body.
In 2015, more than 220 scientists and health professionals from around the world signed a sweeping consensus statement (the Madrid Statement) calling on the international community to limit production and use of all these chemicals, both short-chain and long-chain, and to develop safer nonfluorinated alternatives; consumers were also advised, whenever possible, to avoid using products containing them.
Not surprisingly, in rebuttal, the chemical industry asserted that the short-chain chemicals have undergone “rigorous review,” that they “are eliminated more rapidly from the body and are less toxic than long-chain substances,” and thus they are “not expected to harm human health or the environment.”
Cookware 101: Safer Options
Even if you’re not a trained chef, you know that the type of cookware you use can sometimes make or break a meal. Here’s a guide to help you choose among the many options.
What to do
To be on the safe side, look for cookware alternatives that have a long history of safe use (see inset). The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit advocacy group, advises that consumers avoid even the newer generation of nonstick cookware and kitchen utensils, favoring stainless-steel and cast-iron pots and pans.
Still, if you choose to use nonstick pots or pans on occasion, cook at low to medium heat (never overheat them or preheat an empty one), and consider replacing scratched or chipped cookware. No matter what you use, ventilate your kitchen while cooking to minimize inhaling fumes (no fumes are good fumes).
And keep in mind that nonstick cookware is just one source of fluorinated chemicals. They are also found, for instance, in stain-repellent clothing, upholstery, and carpets as well as in food packaging, such as some fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, and pizza boxes. For advice on how to minimize your exposure, consult the EWG website.
Also see Which Cutting Board is Safest?
Published February 03, 2017