Nervous About Nonstick?
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
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