Last updated on March 30, 2017
The no-stick portion of non-stick cookware is a man-made chemical, polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE). This synthetic polymer, known as DuPont’s brand trademark of Teflon, has made non-stick cookware easy to use and clean since the 1940s, however, over the years, many health concerns about the non-stick chemical have risen leaving consumers wondering if Teflon is safe. As a consumer, should you be nervous abut using non-stick?
PTFE is widely used in a variety of applications due to its stability in that it does not react with other chemicals. Furthermore, PTFE provides a near frictionless surface to anything its applied. You’ll also find PTFE to be the main chemical in spray-on fabric protectors. Another chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) or C8, is also a man-made chemical.
PFOA is a chemical used in ski waxes, stain resistant products and in the Teflon-making process. During this Teflon-making process, C8 and other similar chemicals called fluorotelomers, are burned off, however, small amounts remain in the final product.
PFOA is more of a health concern because it has the ability to stay in the human body and in the environment for long periods of time. People who use items such as ski wax, waterproof clothing, wear stain-resistant clothing, have furniture or carpets treated to be stain-resistant, own fire resistant casings or use sealing tape by companies such as 3M, are likely to have low levels of PFOA in their blood. PFOA is systematically found in American drinking water, household dust and even in some foods. It, of course, is also part of the chemical make-up of non-stick cookware.
According to the American Cancer Association, Teflon itself is not a suspected carcinogen — a substance that either causes cancer or helps to grow cancer — however, the gases released when Teflon is heated is where the true concern lies. Not only for humans, but also for animals.
When Teflon and other non-stick cookware get hot, they emit toxic fumes. These toxic fumes or gases are known to make humans sick and kill pet birds, which is why non-stick products come with a high-heat warning. Several commissioned tests show that it only took between two to five minutes for a conventional stove top to heat Teflon, exceeding the point of safety and thus, releasing toxic gases.
This is the major health concern with consumers using Teflon. The release of the fumes from heated non-stick pans, especially with overheated pans, can cause flu-like symptoms in people and can be fatal to birds. The human flu-like condition from the Teflon gas is called polymer fume fever. While PTFE is a concern, in a draft report by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on PFOA, they state, “there is suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity, but not sufficient to assess human carcinogenic potential.”
However, the University of Rochester Medical Center explains that the chemicals used in making Teflon, specifically PFOA, has been linked to cancer in lab animals. There is also a possibility of human health conditions including reduced fertility and elevated cholesterol and thyroid disease.
If you use Teflon cookware, it’s important that you avoid overheating your non-stick pan and that you ensure proper ventilation in your kitchen. Since birds are extremely sensitive to the fumes emitted from non-stick cookware, pet owners might want to reconsider using non-stick products around the home. The EPA currently states that using non-stick cookware does not pose any health risks to humans.
Are there healthier options to Teflon?
Yes. Keep your eyes open for labels marked as green or not non-stick, but read the packaging carefully to make certain you know what you’re getting. Even some green cookware products are Teflon coated. The safest — as in healthiest — cookware options continue to be stainless steel, oven-safe glass and cast iron. Most chefs readily agree that stainless steel browns food better than any non-stick product, while others prefer the natural non-stick of cast iron. While these options may be a little harder to clean, they’re worth it.
Keep in mind that even stainless steel, cast iron and aluminum pots and pans can come with a non-stick coating, so shop wisely.