Nervous About Nonstick?
By Amanda Schaffer
Easy to clean and incredibly popular, this cookware is still considered
potentially toxic by some experts. Good Housekeeping settles the debate and
tells you how to use it safely.
How much do women love nonstick? The sales figures tell the story: In 2006,
pots and pans with this special coating (Teflon is the best-known version)
constituted 90 percent of all aluminum cookware sold, according to industry
numbers. Yet despite nonstick's advantages (its surface makes cleanup easy and
also allows cooks to use less oil and butter), it has come under fire in recent
years over concerns about toxic chemical emissions. Dozens of reports and
studies — from both industry and outside sources — have turned up conflicting
conclusions. So we talked to numerous experts and looked at the major studies —
and also conducted our own lab tests at the Good Housekeeping Research
Institute — to find out: Just how safe are nonstick pots and pans?
The answer is a qualified one. They're safe, says Robert L. Wolke, Ph.D., a
professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and the author
of What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained, as long as
they're not overheated. When they are, the coating may begin to break down (at
the molecular level, so you wouldn't necessarily see it), and toxic particles
and gases, some of them carcinogenic, can be released.
"There's a whole chemistry set of compounds that will come off when
Teflon is heated high enough to decompose," says Wolke. "Many of these
are fluorine-containing compounds, which as a class are generally toxic."
But fluoropolymers, the chemicals from which these toxic compounds come, are a
big part of the coating formula — and the very reason that foods don't stick to
If the danger begins when pans overheat, then how hot is too hot? "At
temperatures above 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the breakdown begins and smaller
chemical fragments are released," explains Kurunthachalam Kannan, Ph.D., an
environmental toxicologist at the New York State Department of Health's
Wadsworth Center. DuPont, inventor and manufacturer of Teflon, agrees that 500
degrees is the recommended maximum for cooking.
How fast will a nonstick pan reach 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the point at
which its coating can start to decompose? The Good Housekeeping Research
Institute put three pieces of nonstick cookware to the test: a cheap,
lightweight pan (weighing just 1 lb., 3 oz.); a midweight pan (2 lbs., 1 oz.);
and a high-end, heavier pan (2 lbs., 9 oz.). We cooked five dishes at different
temperatures on a burner that's typical in most homes. The results: Even we
were surprised by how quickly some of the pans got way too hot.
At very high temperatures — 660 degrees Fahrenheit and above — pans may more
significantly decompose, emitting fumes strong enough to cause polymer-fume
fever, a temporary flulike condition marked by chills, headache, and fever.
(The fumes won't kill you — but they can kill pet birds, whose respiratory
systems are more fragile.) At 680 degrees Fahrenheit, Teflon releases at least
six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, according to a study by the
Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog organization. "However,
even if those gases are formed, the odds that you're going to breathe enough of
them to be sick are low," says Wolke, a point corroborated by several of
the experts we interviewed. What no one has yet researched is whether
overheating these pans regularly for a prolonged period might have long-term