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Nervous About Nonstick?


WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Amanda Schaffer

Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo

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 nonstick.

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.

Sticking Point

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 effects.

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