Cooks everywhere have come to rely on nonstick pans as a great way to cook or bake food without being left with a difficult and sticky cleanup afterward. In the world of low-fat cooking, in particular, nonstick pans are a necessity, since they require little or no oil for cooking. But pans produced prior to 2015 may have perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)—also known as C-8—which was used to bond the nonstick coating to the pan. The health concerns about PFOA led the major producers of nonstick chemicals to work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to eliminate it from their products. This program was a success the production and use of PFOA ended in 2015.
Health Concerns Lead to PFOA (C-8) Elimination
In early 2006, the EPA asked eight American companies, including DuPont, maker of Teflon-brand nonstick cookware, to work towards the elimination of PFOA—which they labeled a likely carcinogen—by 2015.
PFOA has been shown to cause cancer, low birth weight and a suppressed immune system in laboratory animals exposed to high doses of PFOA. Studies prior to 2006 showed the chemical to be present at low levels in the bloodstream of nine out of 10 Americans and in the blood of most newborns. Although the effects of PFOA at lower doses in humans are disputed, there does seem to be a link between PFOA and raised levels of cholesterol. More seriously, some people have claimed that PFOA exposure caused birth defects in babies born to mothers working at a Teflon plant in the early 1980s.
How the chemical is transmitted to humans is unclear and, thus far, there’s no evidence that nonstick cookware, in particular, is to blame. But DuPont has been in the cross-hairs of the EPA for some time and was heavily fined for allegedly hiding data for many years on the toxicity of PFOA, and also for contaminating the Ohio River drinking-water supply near its West Virginia plant.
High Heat Is a Concern With Nonstick Cookware
Both DuPont and the EPA say cooks have little to worry about if they use nonstick cookware properly. There’s little dispute that, above certain temperatures—hotter than the smoke point of cooking oils or the point where food is burned—the nonstick coating will break down and release toxic fumes. Any surface that’s subject to extreme temperature will give off toxic gases.
According to DuPont, cookware with Teflon nonstick coating has a recommended maximum use temperature of 500 F and that significant decomposition of the coating will occur only when temperatures exceed about 660 F, which easily could happen if nonstick pans were left dry or empty on a hot burner.
Cook's Illustrated magazine reported on tests of nonstick skillets in its May/June 2005 issue and found that such extreme temperatures could even be reached by cooking some foods on high heat (such as stir-fries).
In most cases, the top temperature registered for only a second or two, falling by as much as 200 degrees as the food was moved around the pan.
In 2003 the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported that nonstick coatings "could reach 700 degrees F in as little as three to five minutes, releasing 15 toxic gases and chemicals, including two carcinogens."
The release of toxic fumes from nonstick cookware is known to kill pet birds at much lower temperatures—as low as 464 F, according to the EWG.
Nonstick Cookware and PFOA
There are two issues here:
- Whether PFOA is present in nonstick cookware
- The emission of PFOA into the environment
DuPont and other chemical companies took action to ensure that emissions of PFOA were eliminated by 2014. DuPont completed phasing out PFOA in 2013. The chemical industry as a whole stopped producing and using PFOA in 2015.
While PFOA was used to bond the coating of nonstick cookware prior to 2013, DuPont claims this particular chemical is subsequently destroyed in the heating process in manufacturing, and not present in the finished nonstick surface.
Trace elements of PFOA were found, however, in one extreme test where the surfaces of the pans were ground up, but today’s nonstick coated pans are tougher than ever before and can withstand less careful handling than previous generations of nonstick cookware.
Using Nonstick Cookware Safely
There seems little reason to toss out your nonstick pots and pans, as long as they are in good condition. Under normal use, the pans are almost certainly safe. But if you buy new nonstick cookware you can be assured that it has no PFOA.
Use these tips for your nonstick cookware:
- Never leave nonstick pans unattended on an open flame or other heat sources.
- While cooking, don’t let temperatures get hotter than 450 F.
- Don’t use metal utensils on nonstick cookware.
- Wash nonstick cookware by hand using nonabrasive cleaners and sponges (do not use steel wool).
- Don’t stack nonstick cookware on top of each other.
- Keep pet birds out of the kitchen as they are particularly sensitive to the chemicals released by nonstick cookware.
Environmental Protection Agency. Fact sheet: 2010/2015 PFOA stewardship program.
Eriksen KT, Raaschou-nielsen O, Mclaughlin JK, et al. Association between plasma PFOA and PFOS levels and total cholesterol in a middle-aged Danish population. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(2):e56969. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056969
Environmental Working Group. Poisoned legacy ten years later, chemical safety and justice for dupont’s teflon victims remain elusive. April 2015.
Environmental Working Group. Petition to the united states consumer product safety comission to require warning labels on cookware and heated appliances bearing non-stick coatings. May 15, 2003.