Teflon Pan Safety: What You Need to Know About Nonstick Pans

by Lela Nargi

4/14/20

The cookware industry has gone to great lengths to convince consumers that nonstick and Teflon pots and pans are safe to use.  Chemours, the company that brought you the iconic nonstick surface, Teflon, states on its website that it’s “committed to making chemistry as responsible as it is essential.” It touts GenX, its follow up to Teflon — after a chemical necessary to its production was banned in the US — as a nonstick coating that poses no risk to human health. And all manner of supposedly “green” nonstick options now flood the market, replete with assurances that they are conscientious choices in the kitchen. 

But with controversial PFAS chemicals in the news of late — as of February, 12 states were considering legislation to ban them in food packaging and foam — home cooks might be wondering where the truth about nonstick surfaces lies. It’s complicated — and in some ways, as you’ll see, infinitely simple. But for starters, says Marty Mulvihill, a green chemist and co-founder of safe-technology investor Safer Made, “It’s probably worthwhile for us to ask the question, are these products really necessary?”

A Brief Introduction to PFAS 

Teflon (it’s actually a brand name; the company did not respond to requests for comment.) is a polymer that was a marvel of 1930s chemical science; it’s so unreactive, food molecules can’t bond with it and slide right off. Its chemical name is polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE. PTFE is one of about 4,700 compounds, according to Mulvihill, that comprise a class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS.

Terms to Know
PFAS
Perfluorinated chemicals, sometimes called "forever chemicals," are a class of synthetic chemicals used primarily on fiber-based food packaging to make them water and oil-resistant. They have been linked to a range of negative health outcomes.

PFAS don’t just show up in nonstick cookware; they’re also used to make firefighting foams and waterproof jackets, food packaging and stain removers, lipstick and ski wax. That makes the PFAS problem — and it is a problem, as we’ll get to below — “bigger than the pan,” Mulvihill says. 

Forever Chemicals 

PFAS have earned the moniker “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down, instead accumulating in the environment and in our bodies. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that 99 percent of Americans have PFAS in their blood; these chemicals are implicated in kidney and testicular cancers, and in endocrine disruption, among other deleterious outcomes. 

This isn’t a byproduct of cooking in nonstick pans — although these pans can only be heated to a certain temperature before their coating releases toxic fumes, and one scratch with a sharp spatula makes that coating start to flake off. Rather, it’s the manufacture of nonstick surfaces that directly pollutes our drinking water with toxic chemicals — an occurrence that’s been well documented, including in a series of articles by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept

Some of the chemicals used to make nonstick surfaces also wind up in the wastewater sludge that’s spread on agriculture fields, and from there they are absorbed by crops. Points out Olga Naidenko, vice president of science investigations at EWG, “There are not a lot of places to hide from PFAS pollution.” She also says that there’s currently no good way to dispose of the nonstick pans you’ve already got in your cabinet; they get sent to landfills, where, over time, they leach their chemicals into the soil.

Only two PFAS have been phased out of manufacture, at least in the US: PFOS, once used to make stuff like Scotchguard, which protects carpets from your red-wine mishap; and PFOA, which was once combined with PTFE to make Teflon. But some of the other 4,698 PFAS in existence are being used in industry, “and they’re showing up in people’s water supply, and they’re persistent just like the others,” says Mulvihill. “It’s harder to say with scientific certainty what doses of those affect human health and accumulate in which tissues. Which means we should apply the precautionary principle and try to avoid them.”

Teflon Pan Safety: Pans to Avoid

There’s a dizzying array of nonstick pans out there. Ceramic pans, made with silica (i.e., sand) and “reinforcing chemicals,” claim to be PTFE, PFOA, and sometimes PFOS free. Ditto silicon pans. Some anodized aluminum pans are advertised as “Teflon-free.” And Teflon (a.k.a PTFE) pans boast being PFOA-free. Then there’s GenX, made with a perfluorinated chemical called PFBS that Chemours once insisted would be a non-toxic upgrade from PFOA, but which the company is now having to remediate from the water and land around its plant in Fayetteville, NC

Basically, says Mulvihill, the lingo of nonstick pans is purposefully a “world of confusion. But just because a pan says ‘No PFOA’ or ‘No PFAS’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain perfluorinated substances.” 

On the one hand, PFOA has been phased out in the US so that claim is a red herring. And remember, PFOA is one of only 4,700 chemicals in the PFAS class.

On the other hand, so-called “PFAS-free” ceramic pans —Thermalon and Calphalon, for example — contain other perfluorinated substances, called perfluorosilicones. “These are a beast unto themselves,” says Mulvihill. They’re structurally similar to PFAS and “will be persistent in the environment and likely in our bodies,” although it’s hard for consumers to find much information about them. Are they safer than PFAS? Maybe, he says. But no one seems to be doing — or sharing — research that would confirm or disconfirm that.

Pans to Embrace

Naidenko uses a shortcut to determine whether or not a pan might contain a Teflon-like material: “A [possible] telltale sign is if the manufacturer says it cannot be heated above a certain temperature,” she says. (Although she also points out that “For cooking safety, it is best to avoid overheating any kind of cookware!”)

Mulvihill’s shortcut: “If eggs stick to the surface of your pan, it does not contain perfluorinated substances; it’s almost as simple as that. Because there’s no way to get a magic Teflon-like surface without using that chemistry.” 

If you’re looking to buy new pans, both experts suggest pans that contain no perfluorinated substances. “The good news is that the cookware market has a tremendous number of options,” Naidenko says. She and Mulvihill both tout stainless steel as a safe, and long-lasting, option. 

“Occasionally cooking eggs on a nonstick pan” isn’t necessarily detrimental to your health, Mulvihill says. But that’s not the point. “These chemicals are now in everyone’s blood, because they’re in our water and food stream, and they never break down. We need to move away from things like this. They’re causing harm — if not directly to us, then to other people and the environment.”

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