Nonstick pans are an icon of the postwar “Better Living Through Chemistry” epoch of technological enamorment; fittingly, almost every home in America likely has at least one of them. Teflon pans have existed since the 1960s; Cook’s Illustrated notes that today 70 percent of all cookware sold in the United States is nonstick. And while Teflon’s powers of food repulsion are a source of wonderment, the chemical engineers behind them were unable to endow them with the equally magical property of indestructibility. Hence my house, and your house, and probably every house I’ve ever set foot in, has at least one aging, slightly warped nonstick pan, often with small bits of black plasticine crud chipping off the surface.
I encourage you to take a break from this article and report to your kitchen. Find the aforementioned aging teflon pan in your cupboard, and then run your fingernail down the flaked parts on its surface. Some black stuff came off, didn’t it?
Normally, we don’t intentionally flake our pans with our fingernails. But if something as soft as keratin can cause teflon chipping, presumably the black flakes come off naturally while we’re cooking with them — and especially when we cook with them using non-recommended utensils (like metal, which you're not supposed to use on nonsticks). Manufacturers impel us not to use metal on our teflon pans, nor to heat them beyond "medium," but these instructions are not well-disseminated.
In any case, the ubiquity of Teflon means that the average American is exposed to Teflon-cooked food routinely at home, or in meals prepared at restaurants. That means all of us are consuming or put in contact with Teflon all the time. Indeed, Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the carcinogenic chemical involved in Teflon production until a few years ago, is so prevalent that it is present in nearly every American’s bloodstream in measurable quantities, according to the New York Department of Health.
More concerning, the companies involved in manufacturing Teflon, both 3M and DuPont, have a track record of covering up or lying about the effects of said chemicals used in the manufacturing process. It took a court order in 2000 to get DuPont to release their studies about PFOA. What lawyers discovered in decades of PFOA files was documented in horrific detail a New York Times Magazine feature from 2016:
...The documents [revealed] that 3M and DuPont had been conducting secret medical studies on PFOA for more than four decades. In 1961, DuPont researchers found that the chemical could increase the size of the liver in rats and rabbits. A year later, they replicated these results in studies with dogs. PFOA’s peculiar chemical structure made it uncannily resistant to degradation. It also bound to plasma proteins in the blood, circulating through each organ in the body. In the 1970s, DuPont discovered that there were high concentrations of PFOA in the blood of factory workers at Washington Works. They did not tell the E.P.A. at the time. In 1981, 3M — which continued to serve as the supplier of PFOA to DuPont and other corporations — found that ingestion of the substance caused birth defects in rats. After 3M shared this information, DuPont tested the children of pregnant employees in their Teflon division. Of seven births, two had eye defects. DuPont did not make this information public.
“DuPont, 3M and other PFC manufacturers had ample indications decades ago that PFOA and other perfluorochemicals contaminate the blood of the general U.S. population,” writes the Environmental Working Group, an environmental nonprofit. “How and why they ignored the warning signs is one of the more disturbing chapters in the unfolding tragedy of PFC pollution.” DuPont noticed birth defects in its female employees’ children back in the 1980s, a fact that they were not forthcoming about; later in 2001, 3M scientists did a study of 598 American children that found that 96 percent had PFOA in their blood.
There are a slew of chemical acronyms here, so let’s review: The chemicals involved in nonstick pans are known as PFAs, shorthand for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. There are many different subclasses of these chemicals, but they all start with “PF”; the Centers for Disease Control factsheet includes details on perfluorosulfonates (PFOs) and perfluorocarboxylic acids like PFOA and PFNA. The specific molecule chains are less important than what these molecules do — which is, namely, reduce friction. In creating surfaces with relatively little friction (thanks to the fluoride atoms), PFAs have tremendous industrial application beyond cooking an omelet; famously, they were used in the uranium refining process in the United States to manufacture A-bombs. PFAs don’t occur naturally, either: unlike some contaminants that existed on Earth long before humans (e.g., lead and mercury), there were no polyfluoroalkyl substances on Earth prior to industrial civilization. It is a testament to global capitalism that virtually everyone in the developed world now has these contaminants coursing through their veins.
In the past two years, manufacturers have phased out the most lingering perfluorinated compounds from nonsticks — those are the PFOAs, which have a four-year half life to leave the bloodstream. In their stead, other shorter-chain perfluorinated chemicals have merely replaced them. However, there is no evidence these are safe; merely, the fact that they are less-tested means manufacturers can claim ignorance and keep selling their same products with slightly different chemicals.
“Thyroid affects, cancer concerns… this is definitely a chemical that should be phased out,” Dr. Tracey Woodruff, the director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco, told Salon. Woodruff explained that PFOAs are being “replaced with newer perfluorinated chemicals, shorter-chain ones… the industry says they’re okay, but there aren’t many studies on them yet. Some of these shorter ones may also be problematic.”
Woodruff described the way the chemical industries toy with these chemicals as akin to an unsanctioned, "Silent Spring"-esque experiment on humans. “We’re in another grand experiment with toxic chemicals, finding out which are bad,” she said. “They phase one out and then replace it with something not thoroughly tested. It’s a sad, never-ending loop the government should get in and break, but this administration will probably make it worse.”
Indeed, it has already: The New York Times reported in October 2017 that Nancy Beck, a Trump appointee in the Environmental Protection Agency, had revised the rules regarding PFOA to make it more difficult to track the health consequences of PFOA contamination — in effect, making it harder to regulate. Beck previously worked at the American Chemistry Council, effectively a lobbying group for the chemical industry. In other words, if you were looking to the federal government to help protect you, you’re looking in the wrong place.
In her research at UC San Francisco, Woodruff analyzes studies on perfluorinated chemicals and their health effects, particularly on pregnant women. “We have done a systematic review of the literature on prenatal exposure to PFOA, and believe that it can adversely increase the risk of lower-birth-weight babies,” she said. She explained that one of the most frightening things about PFOA is how it doesn’t degrade.
“Once the EPA started monitoring PFOA in drinking water, they it they found it everywhere. It doesn’t break down in the environment,” she told Salon.
Woodruff, who says she cooks frequently at home, was able to convey her own research into practical advice about how to mitigate risk in one’s own kitchen.
“When you use a [nonstick] pan, you shouldn’t heat it without putting anything in it,” Woodruff told Salon. “That will emit fumes.” Fumes are one way that perfluorinated chemicals get into human bodies, but birds are particularly susceptible. “There have been reports of people heating those Teflon pans without adequate ventilation, and the birds in their house dying,” Woodruff said. “When someone in the industry was asked about this, she said something like, ‘people should know better than to cook in an enclosed kitchen.’ Like, blaming the canary for being in the coal mine?”
It is well-documented that perfluorinated chemicals can kill birds. In 2010, during a thunderstorm off the coast of the Dutch-occupied Caribbean island of Bonaire, lightning struck several oil tanks, resulting in huge fires. Firefighters fought the fires for many days using foam sprays that contained perfluorinated chemicals, which served as foaming agents. Over a four-month span, the Bonaire population of Caribbean flamingos dropped from several thousand to zero. “For multiple years flamingos were not or only incidentally seen,” wrote scientists in an article in Marine Pollution Bulletin, an academic journal.
I asked Woodruff about my own in-home concerns, the visible chipping of black, plasticine material that one sees on old nonstick pans. Woodruff said her understanding was that the vapors were more dangerous than the chipped pieces. “The research isn’t very definitive,” she added. “The bigger scraped bits — they might just pass through your body, as opposed to the vapors.” Woodruff added that she “was not sure that anyone had thoroughly investigated this question of scratched surfaces.”
Woodruff explained that if you must use nonstick pans, always have oil or food in it. “Definitely don’t heat the pan without something in it,” she said.
Woodruff also mentioned that simple ways of avoiding perfluorinated chemicals were things that you should already be doing — like washing you hands before you eat, or forgoing higher trophic level foods for lower ones. “A lot of these chemicals stick to dust, and that’s how we’re exposed to them — they migrate into dust, sticky surfaces,” Woodruff said. She encouraged doing “small things like washing your hands before you eat, eating fruits and vegetables — things you should already be doing.” Woodruff added that she herself uses cast-iron or stainless steel pans, and that a little oil on those surfaces can achieve the same effect as a nonstick pan anyway.
It is problematic that basic knowledge about the proper use of nonstick pans is not more widespread. Indeed, the dark history of perfluorinated chemicals leads to a more political question, and one that implicates the chemical companies manufacturing these kinds of things: Where is the line between corporate responsibility and consumer responsibility? One cannot reasonably expect everyone using a nonstick pan — often which the consumer may not have bought themselves — to know not to heat it over a certain temperature. Are the chemical companies culpable in this regard?
“The industry response is that consumers should just have better training,” Woodruff said caustically. “Studies have shown that training/labeling programs [are] not efficacious. If you don’t want people to get sick you shouldn’t have [perfluorinated chemicals] in homes in the first place.”
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How to avoid exposure to perfluorinated chemicals in your kitchen:
- Avoid using Teflon or other similar nonstick pans, if you can. Cast-irons, enamel cast-irons and stainless steel pans are harmless, and function similarly to nonstick pans if you add enough oil. Titanium and titanium ceramic nonstick pans are different chemical formulations, generally free of perfluorinated compounds, though the titanium ceramic pans have not been well-studied.
- If you must use Teflon or similar nonstick pans, do not heat them on the stove without something in them, whether oil or food.
- Do not heat them higher than the manufacturer-specified temperature, and do not put them in the oven.
- Wash your hands and wipe down surfaces to avoid dust contamination, which PFOAs stick to.
- Keep your kitchen well-ventilated when you use these pans. If you have pet birds, do not keep their cages in the kitchen while you use these pans.