Just what are PFOA and PTFE, and why do people think cooking with a non-stick coating on their cookware is dangerous?
After all, non-stick pans have been around since the 1950s, so they can’t be that bad, can they?
Well, stick around, and I will describe the problems associated with non-stick coated, PFOA, and PTFE cookware. Inform you of what PFOA and PTFE are and explain why they are a danger to your health.
Plus, you will discover why today’s non-stick is not the same as the non-stick of the past.
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Table of contents:
- The Origins Of PFOA And PTFE
- What Is PFOA?
- Potential Danger Of PFOA
- Potential Danger Of PTFE
- PTFE’s Negative Association with PFOA
- Is Cooking With A Non-Stick Coating Dangerous?
- An Alternative To Cooking With PFOA And PTFE
The origins Of PFOA And PTFE
In April of 1938, Dr. Roy Plunket, an employee of DuPont, a US-based manufacturer, inadvertently made the first batch of PTFE.
PTFE is short for polytetrafluorethylene, a fluoropolymer plastic compound better known as Teflon.
The Guinness Book of World Records once listed Teflon as the slipperiest substance on earth. And, to this day, it is known as the only substance that a gecko’s feet cannot stick to!
Dupont quickly noticed its potential and started to mass manufacture PTFE (Teflon) for the industrial market.
Then in the 1950s, a French chemist and his wife found a way to bond Teflon to pots and pans. They did this by using another synthetic compound called PFOA, which is short for perfluorooctanoic acid.
PFOA is a strong bonding agent with the additional properties of being able to repel water and oils effectively.
Once the couple had successfully bonded DuPont’s Teflon to cooking surfaces, the couple started the company T-fal.
To this day, T-fal, also known as Tefal in Europe, continues to manufacture popular and affordable nonstick cookware.
Unfortunately, almost all of its early non-stick production used PTFE and PFOA, and this is where the problems started.
What Is PFOA?
PFOA or “perfluorooctanoic acid” is a human-made synthetic compound used for several industrial applications. These applications include stain resistance for carpeting, upholstery, and apparel.
PFOA can also be found in floor wax, textiles, fire fighting foam, and numerous sealants.
It’s important to note here that PFOA is also used in the process of making PTFE. However, in this instance, its chemical components are different.
There are currently many health concerns associated with PFOA. This is worrying as this synthetic compound can stay in the environment and the human body for long periods.
Hence the concern about non-stick coatings flaking and then dropping those flakes into the food that we consume.
Potential Danger Of PFOA
As a result of a class-action lawsuit against DuPont, studies were conducted on the population surrounding a chemical plant. These studies highlighted that the workers were exposed to PFOA at levels greater than in the general population.
The studies also found a correlation between high PFOA exposure and six health outcomes.
The six health outcomes are:
- Kidney cancer,
- Testicular cancer,
- Ulcerative colitis,
- Thyroid disease,
- Hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol),
- Pregnancy-induced hypertension
It is also known to be a liver toxicant, a developmental toxicant, an immune system toxicant, and an endocrine disruptor.
Because of these dangers, manufacturers have stopped using PFOA in non-stick cookware.
However, pre circa 2015 cookware, or cheaply constructed and mass-produced cookware, could still contain PFOA.
Potential Danger Of PTFE
It is possible that non-stick coatings can become damaged over their lifetime. This will lead to flaking, and these flakes will enter the human body via the cooked food.
PTFE in itself is not seen as a major health risk as most of it should just naturally be passed out through the body.
Damage can also occur through misuse, such as burning oils and butter onto the surface or overheating.
This brings us to the real danger of PTFE, which is that it can break down when it gets too hot.
At temperatures above 260C (500F), PTFE begins to break down and give off noxious fumes known as fluorocarbon gases.
These gases may only cause brief flu-like symptoms in humans but could be potentially fatal to birds.
This is because of their small and very sensitive respiratory symptoms.
It should be noted that no fumes from overheating and the resulting smoking should ever be inhaled and considered safe.
Therefore, it’s debatable whether breathing in PTFE fumes is more or less dangerous than breathing in any other cooking fumes.
However, PTFE at lower temperatures is seen as safe, and PTFE isn’t just in cookware. You will find it in numerous everyday products from all walks of life.
You may be surprised to know that it’s used as a coating on catheters.
PTFE interferes with bacteria and other infectious agents’ ability to adhere to catheters, thereby reducing hospital-acquired infections.
Furthermore, non-stick cookware coated with PTFE has been approved by the FDA, Food and Drug Association since 1960.
PTFE’s Negative Association with PFOA
Please understand that not all nonstick cookware is Teflon or PTFE. And that not all PTFE cookware relies on the use of PFOA when it’s manufactured.
However, it is widely thought by the public that all non-stick cookware IS coated with PTFE + PFOA.
It is this strong association, then, that has given rise to the misconception that all non-stick coating in cookware is dangerous and should be avoided.
That being said;
PFOA is being used in the manufacture of PTFE outside of the US, but its chemical components are different. As a result, this PTFE may find its way onto the surface of non-stick cookware produced outside of the US.
Or, to put it another way, while PFOA is still used in the manufacturing of PTFE for use on non-stick pans, it’s no longer used as a major component in the production of non-stick cookware.
Most if not all of this toxic substance is used up by the time the production process is complete. The objective being to leave only a minute or trace level of PFOA.
This PTFE cookware can then be legally advertised as being PFOA-free.
Is Cooking With A Non-Stick Coating Dangerous?
In 2013 eight major companies producing PFOA in the US signed with the Global PFOA Stewardship Program to eliminate PFOA by 2015.
Since then, it has been eliminated from the production of non-stick used in cookware.
Although PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States, they are still produced internationally. As a result, they can be imported into the United States in consumer goods such as carpet, leather, apparel, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber, and plastics.
Therefore, cooking with a newer nonstick frying pan is not considered a relevant source of exposure to PFOA.
But as mentioned earlier, there is still a small risk to health if non-stick coated cookware is not used properly.
It should be noted that most nonstick cookware should not be used to cook at high heat. And It’s also important to remember that nonstick frying pans should not be preheated even with oil or butter.
Stainless steel, cast iron, and hard anodized cookware are far more suitable for this purpose.
While PFOA exposure via PTFE cookware is not a major concern, almost all nonstick pans contain fluorine, a chemical that burns off when overheated.
Fluorine exposure can be dangerous to humans and pets, especially birds. Symptoms include headache, chills, and fever in humans, and pet birds may die from overexposure in a non-ventilated environment.
Cooking at low to medium temperatures, well below 260 C (500 F), should not be a problem.
So to stay safe:
- Avoid using older cookware with a flaking non-stick coating, as this could be dangerous to your health.
- Purchase only PFOA-free cookware.
- Avoid buying low-quality, mass-produced cheap cookware, especially from outside of the US.
- Do not overheat any non-stick coating as this could be dangerous to yourself and others, especially birds.
- Avoid the self-cleaning option with your oven. The oven cleans by heating to a high temperature, which could release toxic fumes from your non-stick cookware.
- Learn when, how and if, to use butter and oil with a non-stick coating.
- Match the cookware to the cooking, i.e., cast iron or stainless steel may be a better alternative to non-stick.
- Do not use harsh chemicals, scrubbers, or cooking utensils on any non-stick surface.
Personally I use ceramic as it cooks evenly and doesn’t leach dangerous chemicals. However, for higher heat, I use my hard-anodized pans. These pans were a wedding gift and are still going strong after 29 years!
An Alternative To Cooking With PFOA And PTFE
Although PTFE is still a widespread type of non-stick cookware, There are alternatives available.
Ceramic cookware is a great option and at prices to suit every budget.
The positives of Ceramic Cookware are:
- First, it is free of PTFE and PFOA.
- Is environmentally friendly
- Pots can take heat up to 27000 degrees.
- There is no need to line the pan with oil or butter.
- Easy to clean
- There is a wide variety of styles, colors, and prices
The negatives of ceramic cookware are:
- You cannot use hard abrasive utensils for cooking or cleaning, i.e., no scrubbing.
- Not eradicating all oils or butter can shorten the lifespan of your ceramic
- Can be heavy
So there you have it.
I hope that I have answered all your questions about PFOA and PTFE.
And the question of why people still think that cooking with a non-stick coating on your cookware is dangerous.
However, you now know all about PFOA. And that it’s no longer a safety concern in newer, good-quality non-stick cookware. So ditch your pre-2015 flaking pans and go out and buy your next safer PFOA-free PTFE pan.
P.S while we are on the subject of toxic cooking, please check out my article on the dangers of cooking with aluminum foil.