Nonstick Teflon Cookware: Health Risks?Sep 07, 2018
by the editorial team and Sophia Ruan Gushée
Convenience is more important than ever before as our lives have become more hectic than ever. As a result, cooking, soaking dishes, and scouring pans have become low priority. But when we do prepare our own meals, nonstick pots, pans, and cookware are popular household products that offer lots of convenience.
However, are you aware of the health risks associated with nonstick Teflon coating?
What makes nonstick cookware not sticky?
Nonstick cookware contains a chemical coating that makes it easy to cook food without having the food stick to the cooking surface.
What’s the secret to these time-saving surfaces? Chemicals.
Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are a family of chemicals that were designed to make surfaces nonstick. One of the more studied ones is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). And tetrafluoroethylene is another documented one.
While they make it easier for us to cook, get food onto plates, and clean, some of the chemical ingredients have been associated with health risks. For example:
- Perfluorochemicals (PFCs). PFCs have been used to make Teflon cookware for years. Some of these, including PFOA (below), have been found to accumulate in the body and on the planet, persisting for a long time. Diet is a major source of our PFC body burden, with influence from how food is cooked, processed, and packaged.
- Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, or C8). According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization, PFOA is classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” As part of a class action lawsuit, the C8 Science Panel was a group of epidemiologists that was appointed by a court to examine the potential health effects from C8 exposures. The C8 Science Panel found a probable link between C8 exposures and various health risks: diagnosed high cholesterol, kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Under pressure from EPA, 3M stopped making PFOS (another PFC) in 2002, and in 2005 DuPont agreed to phase out PFOA by 2015. This has been widely reported, including by the Environmental Working Group.
- Tetrafluoroethylene. Tetrafluoroethylene, a compound used for the production of fluorinated polymers including polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, which has been used in nonstick formulas), has been associated with increased "incidence of liver and kidney cancers and leukemia in rats and mice." How these exposures may effect humans is not clear. While experts estimate that the risk is small, I know that there have not been sufficient examinations on how prenatal, postnatal, and early childhood exposures may affect human health.
Are substitute chemicals safe?
As I explain further in the chapter titled "Track Records of Substitutes" in my book A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Our Toxic Exposures, it's really hard to know if substitute chemicals are safer. There are examples of substitute chemicals being not safer, and, sometimes, more threatening to health!
With nonstick cookware, some have a silicone coating to make it nonstick. However, experts disagree on the toxicity of silicone, particularly heated silicone.
What is Teflon?
A registered trademark that is owned by Chemours (formally DuPont), Teflon is not the name of a specific product or chemical. Teflon™ is a brand name that is often associated with PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene). More specifically, Teflon™ is a synthetic polymer containing carbon and fluorine called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which is a a synthetic fluoropolymer of tetrafluoroethylene.
Over the years, the Teflon® brand has often been used as the generic term for the substance, PTFE, although Teflon® is not technically another name for PTFE.
While the brand is most often associated with nonstick cookware, it is also used in a wide range of consumer and industrial applications.
What are the dangers of overheating Teflon cookware?
It's been widely reported, like in the NPR article "DuPont Under Fire for Teflon Fumes," that overheating Teflon cookware can release toxic fumes that make some people sick, and have killed birds. Temperatures of 500 degrees F or more can release toxic fumes. Do not heat nonstick cookware on high, and do not use it under the broiler.
PFCs have been found in the blood supply of nearly all Americans tested, and are often found in children’s blood at higher levels than in adults.
Leading busy lives means less time to spend scrubbing stuck-on food. Nonstick pans allow us the convenience of easy removal and clean up of food. However, Teflon coating health risks may outweigh the benefits of nonstick pans.
Typically, nonstick pans have been made of toxic chemicals that may be harmful to health. Chemicals such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), tetrafluoroethylene, and other perfluorochemicals (PFCs) may be linked to various health issues, including different types of cancer. Overheating Teflon cookware may release toxic fumes into the home and cause illness in humans, and kill birds.
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