Rumors about the dangers of non-stick cookware are widespread on the internet, but what does the science really say?
Most of the hoopla started in 2006 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked US chemical companies to remove a substance called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) from its products and plant emissions. PFOA is an intermediate chemical in the production of polytetrafluoroethylene, better known by its commercial name Teflon.
PFOA worries scientists because it is extremely long-lived when it gets into the environment, and has been found in humans at low but potentially dangerous levels. The majority of PFOA contamination in the environment is thought to come from chemical plants, and the workers there have higher blood levels than the average population. This is the reason the EPA asked the chemical to be removed from production. For most humans, the main exposures are from eating fish that live in contaminated lakes and rivers, and bags of microwave popcorn.
Importantly, only trace amounts if any PFOA is present in the final Teflon product and the EPA does not think discontinuing use of non-stick cookware is necessary. Independent tests of 26 commercial brands of cookware indicate that the amount of chemicals migrating from cookware into food is negligible.
The study that raised the most alarm about non-stick cookware was conducted in 1982, when scientists exposed birds to fumes created by burning cookware at 685 degrees Fahrenheit. Not surprisingly, the birds experienced respiratory distress and some of them died. Since most stovetops do not reach this level of extreme heat, the lesson is that if for some reason you leave a pan on the burner to the point where it is releasing fumes, it is best not to inhale them. You should also probably throw the pan away.
Conventional wisdom says that if you scratch the surface of a Teflon pan it can become toxic, but I could not find evidence to back up this claim. It also seems unlikely to be harmful given that studies using small amounts of non-stick coating did not release chemicals in detectable amounts even when the substance was heated.
To summarize, non-stick cookware is safe unless burned at high temperatures, in which case you should not inhale it. If you’re worried about PFOA, your best bet is to not work at chemical plants that still use it, and to avoid eating contaminated fish and microwave popcorn.
When it comes to the science of wellness, distinguishing the facts from the urban legends can be tough. That’s why we’ve enlisted Darya Pino – a scientist, foodie, and self-proclaimed geek girl. Check out the ZocDoc Blog every Tuesday to see her bust the biggest myths in health.
Image: Never again Mr. Onion, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from dollen’s photostream.