I grew up in a non-adhesive household. No matter what was on the menu, my dad would reach for the Teflon-coated skillet first: the nonstick for stir-fried vegetables, for reheating takeaway, for the side sunny-side up eggs, garlic fried rice, and the crispy spam chips that made up breakfast. Nowadays, I’m a much more finicky cook: a stainless-steel skillet is the workhorse of my kitchen. However, when I’m looking to make something delicate, like a golden pancake or a classic omelette, I can’t help but go back to those time-tested favourites.
And what a dream to use. The nonstick surfaces are so friction-free that crisp crepes and scallops practically lift themselves out of the pan; Cleaning up sticky foods, like the ooze of grilled cheese sandwiches, doesn’t get any more difficult than rinsing your plate. It’s no wonder that 70 percent of the pans sold in the United States are nonstick. Who can afford to cut a delicious filet of snapper or take the time to clean up the crispy rice?
However, all of this convenience comes at a cost: the unsettling feeling that cooking with a nonstick pan is somehow bad for you. My dad had a rule that we could only use a soft, silicone-edged spatula with the pan, which stemmed from his hazy intuition that any scratches on the coating would seep into our food and make us sick. Many home cooks have been living with these concerns since at least the early 2000s, when we first started hearing about problems with Teflon, the material that makes pans nonstick. Teflon is produced from chemicals that are part of a huge family of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and research has linked exposure to them to many health conditions, including some cancers, reproductive issues, and high cholesterol. And that’s all we know: In kitchens for the past two decades, the same questions about safety have remained unanswered amid the smells of sizzling foods and, perhaps, the invisible clouds of Teflon fumes.
It is objectively ironic that the safety of one of America’s most common household items remains such a mystery. But the truth is, it’s nearly impossible to measure the PFAS risk of nonstick cookware—and more importantly, it’s probably pointless to try. This is because over many decades PFAS has imparted valuable stain and water resistance to many types of surfaces, including carpets, car seats, and raincoats.
At this point, chemicals are everywhere in the environment, particularly in water supplies. Last June, the EPA set new safety guidelines for a specific level of PFAS in drinking water; A study published around the same time showed that millions of deaths were related to exposure to PFAS. According to the Environmental Working Group’s most recent count, PFAS has contaminated more than 2,850 sites in 50 states and two territories — an “alarming” level of spread, the researchers wrote in a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report last year. But something about non-stick pans has generated the most panic. This is not surprising, given their exposure to food and to open flames. After all, people don’t overheat and wear raincoats (as far as I know).
Since research into their health effects began, certain types of PFAS have been rated as more dangerous than others. Two of them, PFOA and PFOS, were phased out by manufacturers for several reasons, including the fact that they were considered dangerous to the immune system; Many nonstick pans now specify that their coating is PFOA-free. (If you’re confused by all the acronyms, you’re not the only one.) But other types of PFAS are still used in these coatings, and their risks to humans aren’t clear. Teflon claims that any flakes of nonstick coating you might swallow are inert, but public studies that support this claim are hard to find.
In the absence of relevant data, it seems everyone has a different view on non-stick pans. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows PFAS to be used in nonstick cookware, but the Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to it can lead to adverse health effects, and last year proposed designating certain members of the group as “hazardous materials.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the health effects of reduced exposure to these chemicals are “unconfirmed.” Food experts are similarly hesitant about nonstick pans: A writer on the cooking website Serious eats He said he “wouldn’t assume they’re completely safe”, while A.J wire cutter The review said it “appears safe” – if used properly.
This is about the strongest answer you’ll get regarding non-stick cookware safety. “It has not been proven in any study that people who use nonstick pans have higher levels of PFAS,” says Jane Hoppen, a North Carolina State University epidemiologist and a member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee that studies PFAS. But she also told me that in terms of the broader research on health risks associated with PFAS, “I haven’t seen anyone saying it’s safe to use.”
Certainly, more research could be done on PFAS, given the lack of relevant studies. There is no research, for example, that shows that people who use nonstick pans are more likely to get sick. One study on exposure from nonstick pans mentioned in the report Hoppin et al published last year found inconclusive results after measuring gaseous PFAS released from hot nonstick pans, although the researchers tested only a few pans. Another study in which scientists used nonstick pans to cook beef and pork — and a variety of luscious meats including chicken nuggets — and then measured PFAS levels similarly failed to come to a conclusion, because too few meat samples were used.
Perhaps more scientists could be persuaded to pursue rigorous research in this area if exposure to PFAS only came from nonstick pans. Investigating the risks can be difficult, perhaps impossible: Designing a rigorous study to test for risks of exposure to PFAS would likely involve inadvertently forcing test subjects to breathe in PFAS fumes or eat food from dripping pans. But given that we are exposed to PFAS in many other ways—drinking water being the main one—what’s the point? “They’re in your dental floss, they’re in your Gore-Tex jacket, and they’re in your shoes,” Hoppin said. “The relative contribution of any of these things is small.”
As long as PFAS continues to multiply in the environment, we may never fully know what non-stick pans are doing to us. The best we can do at the moment is determine what level of risk we are willing to accept for the slippery pan, based on the information available. And this information is frustratingly vague: Most non-stick products come with a disclosure of what types of PFAS they contain and which ones they don’t. Sometimes they also include instructions for avoiding extreme heat, especially above 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Hoppin recommends throwing your nonstick pans away as soon as they start dripping; In general, it seems beneficial to use pans only when necessary. There is also a dearth of guidance on inhalation of fumes from a very hot frying pan, although inhalation of PFAS fumes in industrial settings is known to cause flu-like symptoms. If you’re worried, you can use any of the growing number of nonstick alternatives, including carbon-ceramic cookware, Hoppin said. (Her preference is well-seasoned cast iron).
However, perhaps it is time to accept that exposure to PFAS is inevitable, as is exposure to microplastics and other carcinogens. At this point, there are so many harmful substances all around us that there doesn’t seem to be any point in trying to reduce them in individual products, although such efforts are underway for raincoats and menstrual underwear. “What we really need to do is remove these chemicals from production,” Hubin said. The hope is that doing so will greatly reduce our exposure to PFOS, and there is evidence that it will work: After PFOS was phased out in the early 2000s, its levels in human blood decreased dramatically. But until the PFAS is more tightly regulated, we’ll continue to slide endlessly through nonstick limbo, with our understanding of cookware safety remaining slippery at best.
I’ve tried to minimize non-stick pan use for ultimate peace of mind. Many professional chefs dismiss non-stick pans as unnecessary if you know proper technique; After all, French chefs had been flipping omelets long before the first Teflon pan was invented—by a French engineer—in 1954. Imagining myself pure, I recently attempted to cook an omelet using all-stainless steel, following a set of demanding instructions that included quantities other than Acceptable amount of butter and a moderate amount of heat. Contrary to my determination to avoid non-stick pans, the eggs are stuck.