This piece was written by Elizabeth Stilwell with updates by me.
Is Your Nonstick Pan Poisonous
But if you are a sentient being reading this article in 2016, you already have PFOA in your blood. It is in your parents’ blood, your children’s blood, your lover’s blood. How did it get there? Through the air, through your diet, through your use of nonstick cookware, through your umbilical cord.Nathaniel Rich, New York Times
A few years ago, The New York Times Magazine published a longform article about environmental lawyer Robert Bilott. The piece covers Bilott’s 16 year and counting legal battle against chemical company DuPont, detailing the decades of health risks the company has covered up. The findings center around the unregulated chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.
Developed in the late 1940s by 3M, DuPont began purchasing PFOA in 1951 for use in its Teflon coating. DuPont has been conducting internal studies and connecting the chemical to health defects in animals and people for over four decades. Never revealing their findings or removing the chemical from their products, DuPont even began dumping waste water tainted with PFOA into the Ohio River on the edge of their Parkersburg, WV facility.
People have been drinking this contaminated water and using Teflon products for decades without knowing about the health effects DuPont discovered. The New York Times Magazine reports, “By the ’90s, Bilott discovered, DuPont understood that PFOA caused cancerous testicular, pancreatic and liver tumors in lab animals. One laboratory study suggested possible DNA damage from PFOA exposure, and a study of workers linked exposure with prostate cancer.”
The connection between PFOA (in Teflon) and health has been revealed for sometime and, while I knew non-stick wasn’t the most healthy option, I wasn’t aware of the extent of damage it is doing the world over. Again, from the NYT Magazine piece:
Where scientists have tested for the presence of PFOA in the world, they have found it. PFOA is in the blood or vital organs of Atlantic salmon, swordfish, striped mullet, gray seals, common cormorants, Alaskan polar bears, brown pelicans, sea turtles, sea eagles, Midwestern bald eagles, California sea lions and Laysan albatrosses on Sand Island, a wildlife refuge on Midway Atoll, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, about halfway between North America and Asia.
To add insult to injury (literally), the E.P.A. has only “set a ‘provisional’ limit of 0.4 parts per billion for short-term exposure, but has never finalized that figure. This means that local water districts are under no obligation to tell customers whether PFOA is in their water.” DuPont, in response to the lawsuits, is transitioning to a similar (but less researched and unregulated) florine-based compound. A separate coalition of 200 scientists have signed The Madrid Statement declaring their concerns over all fluorochemicals and recommending legislation to limit production and develop safer alternatives.
Read the whole NYT Magazine article here.
What You Should Do
Now we’ve established that DuPont is an ethically bankrupt corporation, but what does this have to do with your cookware right now? If you need new cookware, do not add to the demand for non-stick options. If you already own some, I don’t believe it’s overreacting to suggest you stop using it immediately (I would).
While flakes of Teflon from a scratched pan are often treated as toxic, according to the Environmental Group (mentioned in the NYT piece for their research) solid flakes are inert and non-toxic. The toxicity of Teflon comes from the fumes created when a non-stick pan is overheated. Breathing the fumes can cause flu-like symptoms (aptly called “Teflon Flu”) while the effects of long term exposure are unknown. From the EWG:
Manufacturers’ labels often warn consumers to avoid high heat when cooking on Teflon. But EWG-commissioned tests conducted in 2003 showed that in just two to five minutes on a conventional stove top, cookware coated with Teflon and other non-stick surfaces could exceed temperatures at which the coating breaks apart and emits toxic particles and gases.
What should you do now? DuPont has put the problem in your hands and in your body for you to deal with. The first thing you should do is stop using non-stick cookware and utensils. For cookware, safer alternatives already exist.
Where to Find Nontoxic Pans
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I have a collection of stainless steel pots and pans, which are easy to find secondhand. Look for RevereWare on sites like ebay or in thrift shops. They aren’t nonstick, so you’ll need to add more oil and stir frequently.
Cast iron is also an excellent option.
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