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Nervous About Nonstick?

Outdated Fears

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 negligible."

Cook-Smart Precautions

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)

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