Cleaning out a cabinet, I came across a skillet that I had once loved but hadn’t used in ages. Though its nonstick Teflon coating was slightly scratched, the pan still seemed serviceable. But was it safe?
“Unquestionably, when they get scratched or overheated — which happens all the time — nonstick surfaces, such as Teflon, release potentially toxic chemicals,” Diane S. Henshel, PhD, of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, told me. These chemicals then seep into our food — particularly fatty foods, including cooking oils. When we ingest them, the chemicals build up in the tissues in our bodies and stick around for years.
A primary chemical of concern used in making many nonstick cookware products is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in laboratory animals given large amounts, PFOA was found to affect growth, development and reproduction and to injure the liver. Other observational studies link PFOA to elevated cholesterol and thyroid disease in humans.
So why is cookware made with PFOA and other chemicals still on the market? Because there are conflicting conclusions about the relative risk of such cookware. What’s more, cookware is not the only source of PFOA exposure — for instance, Teflon also is used in many other stain- and water-resistant products, such as clothing, carpets and furniture. PFOA and other Teflon breakdown products are found in soil, drinking water and ground water as well as in fish and other seafood.
Still, careful consumers are taking matters into their own hands. “I got rid of my nonstick cookware quite a while ago,” Dr. Henshel told me. “We’re exposed to so many unavoidable toxic chemicals every day that it just makes sense to limit what we can.”
For safer cooking: Dr. Henshel recommends using cookware made from stainless steel, cast iron, enamel-coated cast iron or glass. To deter sticking, simply use a bit of cooking oil or cooking spray.
Use ceramic cookware only if it has a clear or white glaze on the inside surface area that touches the food and is made in the US. Ceramics with glazes from foreign countries — especially those with a bright red glaze on the inside surface — may contain heavy metals, such as lead, known to be very toxic. These can be released, particularly when acidic liquids, such as tomato sauce or lemon juice, are heated.
As for aluminum, this metal has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, though scientific studies are contradictory. To be safe, if you choose to cook with aluminum, opt for anodized cookware — its surface is made with an aluminum compound that is harder than regular aluminum and won’t easily scrape off or leach into food.
I also asked Dr. Henshel about the newer-generation nonstick pans, such as those coated with PFOA-free Thermolon. She said, “So long as the surfaces are not scratched, they seem to be safe. Once the surfaces are scratched, though, the underlying metals could be released — and with products from some countries, the base metal may be primarily lead.”