Nonstick Pans - Are You Cooking Healthy Food in a Toxic Pan?

The HWN Team | Insider
Nonstick Pans - Are You Cooking Healthy Food in a Toxic Pan?

image by: Mikhail Nilov

Nonstick pans allow you to cook with less oil and clean-up is a breeze. But are they safe - Monica Reinagel

Fried foods sticking to the cookware were the bane of the kitchen worker. In the 1950's, cooking was revolutionized with the introduction of Teflon - non-stick pots and pans coated with PolyTetraFluoroEthylene (PTFE), a synthetic fluorocarbon. Nowadays it seems that most people can't cook without their nonstick pans.

The chemical company DuPont invented PTFE in 1938 and marketed it as Teflon. Teflon was originally used as a refrigerant. The French engineer Marc Gregoire was the first to use Teflon as cookware coating by sprinkling Teflon powder on an aluminum pan and heating it to just below its melting point. The heating process made the Teflon attach to the metal without any adhesive. Gregoire called his invention Tefal (Teflon plus Aluminum). DuPont introduced non-stick cookware products in the U.S. and received FDA approval in 1960 and now just about everyone produces non stick cookware.1

Teflon is supposedly stable, non-reactive, and most important, highly heat-resistant, making it ideal for use with food. Yet, there are indications that non stick cookware might not be as stable and harmless as it may seem.

The controversy centers around PTFE which belongs to a group of industrial compounds called PerFluoroChemicals (PFCs). During the manufacture of PTFE, another organic compound called PerFluoroOctanoicAcid (PFOA) is used. PFOA is present not only in non-stick cookware but also in certain food packaging and in household cleaning products such as carpet cleaners, hair sprays, and stain-repellent coatings in clothing and other household items.2

Studies have shown that PFCs such as PFOA are present in significant levels in the environment and have been detected in human blood, breast milk and other body organs of people in Western countries. In the late 1990's, there were also reports about the presence of perfluorooctyl sulfonates (PFOS), another type of PFC, in the environment and in the blood of the general population.3

As these chemicals persist for a very long time, the EPA expressed concern for persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity in animals and humans. Since PFOA is very similar chemically to PFOS, these concerns also encompassed the Teflon-related compound. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), consumer products such as Teflon® and other trademark products, are not PFOA as such. However, some of these products do contain trace amounts of PFOA and PFC's as impurities.

So, is non stick cookware unhealthy? Here's what we know.

Teflon toxicosis

This acute condition, also known as Polymer fume fever comes with inhalation of toxic fumes when PTFE is heated to high temperatures. Symptoms are fever, respiratory problems, coughing, and other flu-like symptoms, thus the reason why it is also sometimes called Teflon flu. Several cases of toxicity have been reported mainly due to inhalation of PFC-containing household products such as hair spray or smoking PTFE-contaminated cigarettes.

Teflon flu in relation to non-stick pans was initially associated with deaths of pet birds, especially parrots. However, health experts were already concerned about its effects on human health as early as 17 years ago. A 1993 paper in Occupational Medicine reported that “any industrial or household activity in which PTFE is heated above 350-400 degrees C puts nearby workers or residents at risk of illness and is to be avoided without strict industrial hygiene controls”.4

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) commissioned a study  to test non-stick pans for heat-stability and toxicity and reported: “…cookware coated with Teflon and other non-stick surfaces can exceed temperatures at which the coating breaks apart and emits toxic particles and gases linked to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pet bird deaths and an unknown number of human illnesses each year. Discrepancies between the EWG test results and those reported by DuPont scientists were evident. The EWG test showed that Teflon pans are far from stable as claimed by DuPont.5

EWG further reported: “A Teflon pan reached 721°F in just five minutes… At 680°F Teflon pans release at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, two global pollutants, and MFA, a chemical lethal to humans at low doses. At temperatures that DuPont scientists claim are reached on stovetop drip pans (1000°F), non-stick coatings break down to a chemical warfare agent known as PFIB, and a chemical analog of the WWII nerve gas phosgene.”

Two cases of Teflon-related polymer fume fever have been reported in Japan. In one case, a 59-year-old fell asleep for 4 hours while cooking noodles in a Teflon pan. He woke up with breathing problems and was diagnosed at the hospital with “polymer fume fever with non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema”. In a similar case, a 30-year old man was hospitalized “after inhaling the fumes produced from a Teflon-coated pan, after evaporation of the water in the pan… the pulmonary problems in this patient may have been induced by the products of thermal degradation of Teflon that were present in the fumes”.6,7

Potentially carcinogenic

In 2006, the Science Advisory Board (SAB) of the EPA declared that PFOA is a “likely human carcinogen”.   Based on this finding, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a global stewardship program in 2006 appealing to manufacturers “to reduce PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid) releases and its presence in products by 95 percent by no later than 2010 and to work toward eliminating these sources of exposure five years after that but no later than 2015."

The SAB external panel of experts specifically recommended that the EPA consider immune and nervous system effects on animals in its study of possible human health risks and use a more health-protective and scientifically valid approach to studying human health risks from the chemical.

Chemical companies such as DuPont and 3M pledged to support the stewardship and the eight companies that participate have been submitting annual reports.8-10

Low birth weights

There is evidence that PFOS and PFOA may be linked to lower birth weights in newborn infants. Researchers looked at 293 babies in Baltimore and found PFOS and PFOA in the umbilical cord blood serum in 99% and 100% of the babies, respectively. The babies had “smaller head circumferences and lower scores on the ponderal index, a measure of body mass at birth.”   A similar trend in the relationship between PFOS and PFOA levels and birth weight and size was reported in the Danish population.11,12

Hormonal dysfunction

Research by Norwegian researcher Marianne Kraugerud indicates that PFCs can create havoc with the body’s hormone system. She found that lambs exposed to PFCs while still in their mother’s womb and later via breast milk suffered from hormonal dysfunction, specifically in the production of the steroid hormones. Although the study wasn’t specifically on PFOA, the study results created some concern, as PFOA is a PFC that is widespread in the environment.13

Based on blood analysis of almost 4000 people, scientists found a strong association between 2 kinds of PFCs – PFO and PFOA- and thyroid disease. In particular, women with high levels of PFOA in their blood have more than twice the likelihood of developing thyroid disease. According to a statement by senior study author Tamara Galloway, a professor of ecotoxicology at University of Exeter: “We have provided the first evidence of a statistical association between PFOA blood levels and thyroid disease in the 'ordinary' U.S. adult population. In this type of human population research, it is not possible to be sure whether this is cause or effect. That needs more research”.14


Studies have traced that a major source of human exposure to PFCs is via oral route, e.g. the food we eat. A 2005 FDA study reported leaching or migration of PFCs from food packaging.  In particular, analysis of non-stick cookware and microwave popcorn bags shows residual amounts of PFOA.15,16

And, researchers at the West Virginia University School of Medicine measured PFOA and PFOS in blood samples of 12,476 children and adolescents exposed to contaminated water due to an industrial accident involving these chemicals. They found high concentrations of these Teflon-associated chemicals in these children. What they also found is that these children have abnormally high LDL or "bad" cholesterol as well as total cholesterol levels. However, the authors could not conclude whether PFOA leaching from a Teflon pan would also result in increased cholesterol levels.17

OK, are there healthier alternatives to non-stick cookware?

Yes there are, some of which have been used by our forefathers before PTFE was discovered. These alternatives may not be completely safe - there has not been any significant scientific study that has checked the safety of these cookware. We can only rely on the claims of the manufacturers and marketers. But at least it is good to know there are other options.18

Non stick without PFOA - There are Teflon-free cookware, some at very high prices.19

Stainless steel- An alternative to non-stick pans is stainless steel pans which were used before the non-stick variety became available. These pans are not necessarily stick-proof but there are those with surfaces which are pitted to make the food less likely to stick. Small traces of the metals nickel, chromium and molybdenum may get into the food but they are said to be not harmful.

Cast iron- Another traditional cookware used by our great-grandparents are cast-iron pots and pans. Cast-iron vessels do release some traces of iron which are not considered to be toxic. In fact, iron is an essential mineral.

Aluminum- Cookware made from aluminium are light. The anodized aluminum type is supposedly the safest as it doesn’t get into the food. However, aluminum has also been associated with health problems.

Copper- This cookware used to be fashionable but copper, which is toxic, can get into food during heating. For this purpose, copper pots and pans are lined with tin or stainless steel on the inside. Cooper cookware looks good when polished but can be expensive.

Ceramics- Enamel-coated ceramics are the non-metal alternative cookware. They can be washed in the dishwasher and come in different colors. New versions of ceramic cookware also comes with non-stick and scratch-free finish and are guaranteed by manufacturers to be crack-proof for many years. Its main disadvantage is its breakability.

Glass - Glass bakeware is commonly used in ovens but can’t be used in stovetops. Good quality glassware is basically stable and relatively non-reactive, hence the reason why glass is used in chemistry labs.

The Bottom Line

Non stick cookware is definitely convenient but continues to remain controversial even with the new anodized versions. Ever wonder why the top chefs hardly use them? In the meantime it may be wise to stick to the alternatives with cast iron being the most preferred.

In any event, the story is still not complete. Are you still cooking healthy food in a toxic pan?

Published December 30, 2010, updated June 21, 2012


  1. The History of T-Fal Cookware - The World's First Nonstick Cookware,
  2. Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Fluorinated Telomers, EPA
  3. Fromme H et al, Perfluorinated compounds--exposure assessment for the general population in Western countries, Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2009 May;212(3):239-70
  4. Shusterman D, Polymer fume fever and other fluorocarbon pyrolysis-related syndromes, Occup Med. 1993 Jul-Sep;8(3):519-31
  5. Houlihan J et al, Canaries in the Kitchen: Teflon Toxicosis, EWG finds heated Teflon pans can turn toxic faster than DuPont claims, EWG
  6. Toyama K. Case of lung edema occurring as a result of inhalation of fumes from a Teflon-coated flying pan overheated for 4 hours, Nihon Kokyuki Gakkai Zasshi. 2006 Oct;44(10):727-31
  7. Son M, Case of polymer fume fever with interstitial pneumonia caused by inhalation of polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon), Chudoku Kenkyu. 2006 Jul;19(3):279-82
  8. EPA Science Panel Says Teflon Chemical 'Likely' Cause of Cancer, EWG 2006
  9. EPA Seeking PFOA Reductions, EPA 25 Jan 2006
  10. Annual Progress Reports, 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program, EPA
  11. Betts K, PFOS and PFOA in Humans: New Study Links Prenatal Exposure to Lower Birth Weight, Environ Health Perspect. 2007 November; 115(11): A550
  12. Fei C et al, Perfluorinated chemicals and fetal growth: a study within the Danish National Birth Cohort, Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Nov;115(11):1677-82
  13. Non-stick pans can affect our hormones, new research suggests, Ecologist, August 23, 2010
  14. Thomas J, Chemicals in Carpets, Non-Stick Pans Tied to Thyroid Disease, HealthDay News, January 21, 2010
  15. Bradley EL et al, Investigation into the migration potential of coating materials from cookware products, Food Addit Contam. 2007 Mar;24(3):326-35
  16. Begley TH et al, Perfluorochemicals: potential sources of and migration from food packaging, Food Addit Contam. 2005 Oct;22(10):1023-31
  17. Frisbee SJ, Perfluorooctanoic acid, perfluorooctanesulfonate, and serum lipids in children and adolescents: results from the C8 Health Project, Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2010 Sept;164(9):860-9
  18. West L, Which Type of Cookware is Safest for Cooking, Environmental Issues,
  19. Cookware sets that sizzle, Consumer Reports September 2009

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