Are You Sure You Want that Nonstick Pan? (Because It’s Poisoning the Planet)

The more we learn about nonstick cookware, the less we like it.

The Ohio River Valley: contaminated with PFAS.

People love their nonstick cookware. And even though there have been safety issues associated with PTFE — the generic name for the Teflon® molecule — they feel safe knowing their nonstick pans are now “PFOA-free.”

Unfortunately, PFOA is a small part of the story.

If you want to make an informed decision about the actual safety of nonstick cookware, there are a few more facts you need to know.

What Is PTFE?

PTFE is an acronym for polytetrafluoroethylene. It is the most slippery substance known to man, and was invented accidentally by a Dupont scientist in the 1930s. Dupont named it Teflon®.

PTFE has been used in the nonstick cookware industry since the 1950s, as well as many other industries.

Today, there are hundreds of different brands of PTFE on the market. A few of the more popular ones are Teflon, Eterna, Quantanium, Granitium, Stratanium, and Autograph. (A pan that is “Teflon-free” is not necessarily “PTFE-free.”)

PTFE is part of a larger chemical family called PFAS, or per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances. (We’ll come back to why this is important to know.)

PTFE is an extremely stable compound below temperatures of about 390F. Around this temp, it begins to break down slightly and give off fumes. These fumes are not considered dangerous until the PTFE reaches temps of about 500F: at this point, the fumes can create flu-like symptoms in humans (sometimes called “the Teflon flu”) and are lethal to birds.

Even more significant (though rarely talked about) is the fact that the heated PTFE can break down into unstable PFAS, including the dreaded PFOA.

What Is PFOA?

PFOA, also called C8, stands for perfluorooctanoic acid. Like PTFE, it is in the PFAS family of chemicals. PFOA was used as an adhesive to help the slippery PTFE adhere to cookware materials like aluminum and stainless steel.

PFOA gained notoriety in the 1990s when a lawsuit was brought against Dupont by members of a West Virginia town where PFOA (and probably PTFE) was manufactured. People were coming down with all sorts of odd conditions, including some forms of cancer.

It turned out that Dupont was dumping PFOA-contaminated waste into the local water supply.

Because nobody knew what PFAS were, there were no regulations regarding their dumping. This dumping had been going on since the inception of the nonstick cookware industry in the 1950s. (This story is told in a movie called Dark Waters.)

As people became more aware of the hazards of PFOA, pressure mounted for companies to stop using it. The EPA “encouraged” chemical companies to find alternatives, so they did.

PFOA has been outlawed in the US since 2015. All PTFE nonstick cookware sold in the US is now labeled “PFOA-free.”

Enter GenX: The New PFOA

Manufacturers still needed an adhesive for their PTFE cookware. Most of them switched to a chemical called GenX.

GenX was also invented by Dupont and was dubbed by them to be a “sustainable replacement for the persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemical PFOA.”

The thing is, GenX is also in the PFAS family. And research has shown that it has many of the same issues as PFOA: it’s bioaccumulative (i.e., doesn’t break down naturally), and it’s linked to several health issues in humans, many of the same ones as PFOA.

Lawsuits (yes, more than one) have been filed against Dupont (actually their spinoff company Chemours) because GenX chemicals have been found in the water supply downstream from the Chemours plant.

So apparently, Dupont/Chemours picked up with GenX where they left off with PFOA: other than the name of the chemical, not a lot has changed.

Currently, GenX chemicals are not regulated by any federal, state, or local government. Which means that dumping them into the water supply is perfectly legal.

PFAS: They’re In Our Cookware, Our Water, and Our Bodies

Thanks largely to the nonstick cookware industry, PFAS are present in the blood of nearly every American. Most states have water sources that test positive for PFAS.

This doesn’t even take China into account, where there are huge PTFE manufacturing plants and, as far as we know, few or no regulations.

You might be surprised to learn that regulations are also a problem in the US. PFAS are for the most part not regulated by the EPA, which is why chemical companies have gotten away with dumping them into local water supplies. And this has been going on for more than 60 years.

Banning PFOA was a good step, but we are a long way from solving the problem.

So is Teflon Cookware Really Safe?

Worn Teflon: Is it safe? Maybe…but maybe not.

When used correctly, yes, Teflon and other brands of PTFE are stable, inert compounds. It is only when heated that they can become a problem.

But this is kind of a big problem for an object that’s designed to be heated. You may think 500F is hard to reach, but we heated an empty pan on a gas burner set to medium, and it reached 510F in less than five minutes.

And remember: the fumes start as low as 390F, which is remarkably easy to reach, even at a medium heat setting.

Furthermore, repeated heating — even at safe temperatures — takes its toll on PTFE cookware. You can see the dulled, discolored surface of a PTFE pan that’s been in service for awhile (like the photo above). We can’t say for sure this is unsafe, but the PTFE has definitely degraded — and when it degrades, it’s usually into other PFAS, many of which we know are not safe.

It’s a bit ironic that PFOA became the chemical that everyone was afraid of, because PFOA (and now GenX) is used up in the manufacturing process. Little to none remains in the cookware, and if there is any, the cookware has to be deeply scratched to release it.

The real concern is with the PTFE, which can degrade into PFOA, or PFOA-like chemicals, when heated; this means that even “PFOA-free” cookware has the potential to expose you to PFOA (or at least related PFAS).

The Bigger Issue

Here’s the thing: even if PTFE nonstick cookware is safe when used properly, so what?

There is a much bigger issue here, which is: the poisoning of the planet by the nonstick cookware industry.

There is some evidence that Dupont knew about the dangers of these perfluorinated compounds, but continued to dump them into local water supply, anyway. And even if they didn’t know then, they definitely know now — and yet they continue to contaminate the water supply with GenX chemicals.

All it would take is a reverse-osmosis filter to clean the water before releasing it into the environment. But as far as we know, they’ve made no effort to filter the water until threatened with lawsuits.

And here’s one of the craziest things of all: the EPA still does NOT regulate most PFAS chemicals.

This means that unless there are state or local regulations against dumping, companies are free to continue poisoning and polluting our water, ground, and air with PFAS.

(Thank goodness some states are starting to pass legislation against the dumping of these toxic forever chemicals.)

None of this even addresses China, where the problems are undoubtedly hundreds of times worse. China has huge cookware plants that produce nonstick cookware — many brands for the American market — and though it’s hard to say for sure (because China is secretive about these things), it’s quite likely there are no regulations at all: not for the environment, and not for the workers in these plants.

What Can You Do About It?

  1. Don’t buy nonstick cookware. Even if you use a pan properly and don’t expose yourself or your family to dangerous chemicals, you are still supporting an industry that has poisoned and polluted the planet with “forever chemicals” that don’t break down in the environment or in our bodies. A pan labeled “PFAS-free” sounds better, but without knowing exactly what they’re using to manufacture the cookware (and they’re not telling), we can’t say with certainty that it’s safe.
  2. Other industries that use PFAS include food packaging, stain repellants, carpeting, and the clothing industry. (Microwave popcorn used to be a big offender, but they have largely stopped using PFAS; we don’t know if this means microwave popcorn is now safe.) When you buy these products, try to avoid companies that use PFAS. Here is a list of PFAS-free products.
  3. Install a reverse osmosis water filter on your drinking water. RO is the most effective way to remove chemicals and toxins from your water. (And remember, many municipalities do not test for PFAS and other toxins, so don’t assume your water is safe just because they tell you it is.)
  4. If you’re concerned about cooking without nonstick cookware, don’t be; there are several alternatives that are just as good, and in some ways better. (We’ll talk about this in our next article.)

Final Thoughts

As you may have guessed, this article barely scratches the surface of all the complex issues surrounding PFAS. We encourage you to do your own research and come to your own conclusions.

If you want more information on the chemicals in nonstick cookware (including source material), follow the links in this article, or check out our article What Is PFOA? A Guide to Nonstick Cookware Chemicals on The Rational Kitchen.

Thanks for reading!