Since the early 1960s, non-stick cookware has been welcomed enthusiastically around the world. In 1964, Mirro Aluminum Company’s advertising literally claimed that Teflon was a miracle. The craze started with ads like the one published in Ebony back in August 1964 and Teflon earned the Good Housekeeping seal of approval back in 1964, which is actually quite shocking that it was ever allowed on the market. (1) At the time, no one would have guessed that they were buying toxic cookware!
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Why Teflon & PFOA is So Deadly
Polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are key components used in Teflon’s indestructible chemicals that have been linked to several public health risks such as environmental pollution, various birth defects, and of course cancer. (2, 3, 4, 5) Nearly every American has some level of these dangerous fluorocarbons running through their bloodstream because these chemicals are virtually everywhere!
According to the Environmental Working Group, this is the problem with Teflon include:
- Long-Term Exposure: When you breathe kitchen air polluted with fumes from overheated Teflon, you’re at risk for developing flu-like symptoms (yes, “Teflon flu”). The long-term effects of routine exposure to Teflon fumes, and from Teflon flu itself, have not been adequately studied.
- Perfluorinated Chemical Family: PFCs have been found in nearly all Americans tested by federal public health officials. Chemicals from this family are associated with smaller birth weight and size in newborn babies, elevated cholesterol, abnormal thyroid hormone levels, liver inflammation and weakened immune defense against disease.
- Environmental hazards: Manufacturing PFCs and the consumer products that contain them poses great risks to the environment and wildlife. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says PFCs present “persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree.”
Legal Battle Against PFOA in Toxic Cookware
“The EPA Settles PFOA Case Against DuPont for Largest Environmental Administrative Penalty in Agency History” (6) The headlines sent shockwaves through the chemical and public health sectors.
DuPont has known about the health dangers of Teflon for many years; fluorocarbon research back in the 1960’s made it quite clear that it was deadly. (7) But it wasn’t until 40 years (and billions of dollars of revenue) later, that they got called out on the carpet. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally slapped Dupont’s hands with a $16.5 million fine because decades worth of research connecting their cash cow product to health problems had been covered up.
Watchdog organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) weren’t impressed. In the words of EWG president Ken Cook:
“What’s the appropriate fine for a $25 billion company that for decades hid vital health information about a toxic chemical that now contaminates every man, woman and child in the United States? What’s the proper dollar penalty for a pollutant that will never break down, and now finds its way into polar bears in the Arctic and human babies in their mothers’ wombs? We’re pretty sure it’s not $16 million, even if that is a record amount under a federal law that everyone acknowledges is extremely weak.” (8)
After just a minor spanking, the multi-billion dollar conglomerate continued to use PFOA in their product up until October 2013. (9, 10) DuPont stood in defiance against years of research, lawsuits, and an ongoing criminal investigation conducted by the Department of Justice that found DuPont guilty of not reporting health problems among Teflon workers. Today, Teflon is no longer directly made from PFOA so most of the heat is off of DuPont and public health authorities have all but given it their golden approval.
In his book, What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained, University of Pittsburgh chemistry professor Robert L. Wolke, Ph.D. insists that as long as non-stick pans are not overheated they are safe. (11)
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also on board. According to Paul Honigfort, Ph.D., a consumer safety officer for the FDA, “What we found was that the manufacturing process used to make those pans drives off the PFOA. The risk to consumers is considered negligible.”
Unfortunately, the focus on PFOA has distracted the public health community from the more serious, insidious dangers of Teflon like PTFE.
Toxic Cookware: The “New” Teflon
Teflon can be found in the bloodstream of virtually every American. The fact remains that Teflon is literally everywhere. Advertised to make “your life easier,” Teflon is DuPont’s brand trademark for the material that has historically given this toxic cookware their non-stick coating. However, it is also used in: (12)
- Apparel & Accessories
- Contract & Technical Fabrics
- Home & Garden Products
- Paint Products & Accessories
- Personal Care Products
- Recreational Products
- Transportation Products
Now that DuPont has officially given PFOA the boot, the synthetic polymer that covers aluminum pans is now primary made from polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE). (13) But don’t run out and fill your house with non-stick products just yet because PFOA is used to make PTFE. (14)
So what did the EPA’s $16.5 million fine accomplish? In actuality, it was nothing more than a smoke screen and is now a blazing red herring in the face of health-conscious consumers across the globe.
Fluorotelomers, like PTFE, breakdown into PFOA and other similar chemicals within the body and in the environment. The bottom line is that PTFE is bad news and all non-stick toxic cookware should be avoided at all costs.
Healthy Alternatives & Avoiding Teflon Flu
If you still use non-stick pans, you do have several options.
One of the first things you can do is replace your existing set of non-stick pans with these safe alternatives:
If money is an issue, and you’re stuck using the non-stick stuff, then be sure to follow these Teflon safety guidelines to limit your exposure to the toxins.
- Always keep stovetop temperatures between low and medium.
- Never cook using high heat.
- Never put non-stick pans in the oven over 450 degrees.
- Always use plastic or wood cooking tools to make sure you don’t scratch the surface, and cause the chemicals to leach out.
- Never use metal utensils or metal scouring pads when cleaning.
- Never use the self-cleaning function on your oven. It can release toxic fumes from the non-stick interior.
- Always use the exhaust fan over your stove to help clear out airborne toxins.
- You MUST throw your pan away if it has visible scratches on it. You can pick up a cheap set of frying pans for $25 and it’ll be worth your time and money to switch them out at least every year.
Why We Use Ceramic Cookware
Ceramic is naturally durable and non-reactive, which means that it won’t change the taste of dishes such as tomato sauce that is so common with other cookware. The inorganic, 100% natural materials in ceramic cookware means that there are no dangerous metals or chemicals leaching toxins into your food and air. This durability also means you can use it under high and freezing temperatures alike. You can literally cook a dish under the broiler and put it in the freezer without any issues whatsoever.
Pro Tip: When shopping for ceramic-coated cookware, make sure it’s 100% toxin-free; manufactured without PFAS; does not use PFOA, lead or cadmium, and only use plastic cookware to avoid scratching the coating. Be sure to replace when the top coating has been scratched.