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 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.