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The non-stick cookware debate


This week, we shift gears and go from considering the large global environment in which we live to the small local environment, in which we also live.

This small environment can be as small as your own kitchen. Just as we need to worry about what heavy industry is putting into the air we breathe, so, too, do we need to worry about what we ourselves are putting into our air and our bodies.

Recently, there has been much debate about the safety of using “non-stick” cookware. I have to admit, I love my non-stick pots. Whenever I try to cook in anything else I end up having to chip the food off the bottom of the pan with a chisel. This is less than appetizing. However, am I trading safety for unpetrified food?

Non-stick coating is made from fluoropolymers. These compounds can break down into perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a suspected human carcinogen. PFOA is found at low levels in the blood of most North Americans. Are we getting it from our cookware, though?

As I check this out on the web, some sites tell me my pots are definitely toxic. Then I notice many want to sell me new pots. Other sites tell me my non-stick pots are perfectly safe. Then I notice some sites make the non-stick pots or the coating. Who to believe?

Most of the impartial information I find, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and a leading scientific journal, indicate very little, if any, PFOA in our blood comes from non-stick cookware. The coating decomposes into PFOA at temperatures about 350 C (660 F). Temperatures for normal usage — frying meat: 240 C (470 F), baking: 230 C (450 F) — are well below these levels. In fact, anything you have in the pot — butter, oil, etc. — will start to smoke at 204 C (400 F), and in my experience this will set off your smoke detector. Any coating that flakes off your pan and gets eaten will pass right through you and will not harm you.

If you do heat a non-stick pot above 350 C (660 F) and you breathe in the fumes you can get what is called polymer fume fever, which gives you flu-like symptoms. It is reversed on breathing fresh air in humans, but can be fatal to birds. So don’t keep your canary in the kitchen if you are prone to burning pots. The bottom line with pots is to weigh the health concerns about non-stick coatings against the health concerns of putting more fat in the pan so your food doesn’t stick to a regular pan. I think, for most people, the fat is a greater health risk.

OK, so that’s where PFOA isn’t. Here’s where it is. Microwave popcorn bags. Most of these bags have non-stick coatings and when you heat your popcorn they decompose, leach into the oil and stick to your popcorn. If you eat just 10 bags of microwave popcorn a year, 20 per cent of the PFOA in your blood could be from popcorn.

Finally, we need to take things back to the larger environment and consider where the non-popcorn PFOA in our blood comes from. A possible source is pollution from the industries that put the coating on the pan and in the popcorn bags.

So, use your non-stick pots, but don’t buy more than you need because the more we consume the more they create.

Andrew Laursen is an assistant professor in the department of chemistry and biology at Ryerson University and is a member of the environmental applied science and management program in graduate studies. His research is in the area of ecosystem ecology. Sophia Dore is an environmental scientist with Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, an environmental consulting company. Contact Andrew Laursen at earthtones.metro@gmail.com

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