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.
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."