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How Safe Is Nonstick Cookware?

You probably have some pots, pans, or baking tins in your kitchen that are coated with Teflon. The chemical name for Teflon is polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). This chemical is what keeps food from sticking to nonstick cookware.

The potential problem with nonstick cookware comes from another chemical used in making Teflon. This chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has been linked to cancer in laboratory animals, and possibly linked to elevated cholesterol, thyroid disease, and reduced fertility in people.

PFOA has come under scrutiny by the EPA because the chemical has shown up in samples of people’s blood. This concerns the EPA because PFOA lasts a long time in both people and the surrounding environment.

How dangerous is PFOA?

Before you pitch your nonstick cookware, keep in mind that no research has shown that your blood level of PFOA will go up from using Teflon-coated cookware. Scientists don't really know how PFOA is getting into the environment, but it has been detected in public water supplies.

PFOA has been used in other products besides Teflon, including waterproof clothing, fire-resistant casings and tubing, and sealing tapes. PFOA may have ended up into the environment through many different avenues, researchers say. Currently, the EPA is working with the few companies that still use PFOA in order to reduce factory emissions by 95 percent.

The EPA doesn't know how dangerous PFOA is to health. For now, the agency says that the evidence for its causing cancer is "suggestive."

So how safe are those pots and pans?

A study published in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants tested 26 nonstick cookware products under extreme conditions to find out if any toxic chemicals were released. The study concluded that cooking with the products did not release any chemicals.

Still, fumes released when you overheat nonstick cookware can make you feel sick. Although these fumes are not PFOA and are not linked to cancer, they can cause temporary flulike symptoms in people and may be fatal to pet birds. The symptoms in people are known as "polymer fume fever."

Here’s the bottom line on your nonstick cookware:

  • Nonstick coatings are sprayed on a variety of cookware products, including aluminum, stainless steel, and cast iron. The cookware is then cured under high heat, which probably evaporates any dangerous chemical additives.

  • The EPA currently says that using nonstick cookware does not pose a health risk.

  • To avoid fumes from nonstick cookware, don't overheat when using them for stovetop cooking, make sure your kitchen is well-ventilated, and don't keep your pet bird near the stove.