Nervous About Nonstick?
If cookware is flaking, you might accidentally swallow a chip — but don't be
concerned, says Paul Honigfort, Ph.D., a consumer safety officer with the Food
and Drug Administration. "A small particle would most likely just pass
through the body, without being absorbed and without having any ill effect on
the person's health," he says.
Also of less concern than previously believed: the danger of nonstick pans
exposing the family to PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). A chemical used to
manufacture the fluoropolymers that make up nonstick cookware's coating, PFOA
is associated with tumors and developmental problems in animals, and experts
are concerned about its possible effects on humans. In 2004, DuPont agreed to
pay up to $343 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that PFOA, used in the
manufacture of Teflon at a certain plant, had contaminated drinking water
nearby. This year, a study at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
found an association between PFOA exposure and small decreases in head
circumference and body weight in infants (except those born by cesarean
section). Last year, an independent review panel advised the EPA to classify
PFOA a "likely" human carcinogen. The EPA has not yet adopted the
recommendation, which is disputed by DuPont. In the meantime, the EPA has
reached an agreement with eight companies, including DuPont, to phase out the
use of PFOA completely by 2015.
But while PFOA is still a concern, it's unlikely that we get most of our
exposure from the use of nonstick pans. Sources of PFOA are everywhere: in
microwave-popcorn bags, fast-food packaging, shampoo, carpeting, and clothing.
Studies show that most of us have PFOA in our bloodstreams, and babies show
trace amounts at birth. The FDA has tested nonstick pans to evaluate the danger
of PFOA exposure to humans. "What we found was that the manufacturing
process used to make those pans drives off the PFOA," says Honigfort,
meaning that the chemical evaporates. "The risk to consumers is considered
You can use nonstick safely, as long as you use it properly. Any food that
cooks quickly on low or medium heat and coats most of the pan's surface (which
brings down the pan's temperature) is unlikely to cause problems; that includes
foods like scrambled eggs, pancakes, or warmed-up leftovers. And many other
kinds of cooking are safe as well: In GHRI's tests, the only food prep that
yielded a nonstick pan temperature exceeding 600 degrees Fahrenheit in less
than 10 minutes was steak in a lightweight pan. But to be cautious, keep these
tips in mind.
- Never preheat an empty pan. In GHRI's tests, each of the three empty
nonstick pans we heated on high reached temperatures above 500 degrees in less
than five minutes — and the cheapest, most lightweight pan got there in less
than two minutes. Even pans with oil in them can be problematic; our cheapest
pan zoomed to more than 500 degrees in two and a half minutes.
- Don't cook on high heat. Most nonstick manufacturers, including DuPont, now
advise consumers not to go above medium. (DuPont maintains, however, that
Teflon does not pose any health risks, and that its guideline is simply meant
to maximize the life of the product.)