Q&A: Is cooking with nonstick pans bad for your health?

Consumer Reports News: September 10, 2009 12:09 AM

I've read reports that say cooking with some nonstick cookware can make you sick. Is that true?

There are some concerns with nonstick coatings. Cooking with nonstick cookware at very high temperatures can break down the nonstick coating, emitting fumes that can kill pet birds and possibly cause flulike symptoms in humans.

Another chemical you might have read about related to nonstick coatings is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), used in making nonstick coating for cookware and many other products, including packaging materials and stain-resistant coatings. This chemical and the family of other perfluorinated compounds have been linked to cancer and birth defects in studies with laboratory animals and might pose a risk in humans.

Some perfluorinated compounds have been found to be accumulating in human blood, but our past tests suggest nonstick cookware is not likely to be a significant source of exposure. Working with an outside lab to learn how much PFOA is emitted during cooking, we found that when new nonstick pans were heated to 400°F—below the manufacturers' recommended maximum of 500°F—tested air samples collected above the pans contained very little PFOA. The highest level was around 100 times lower than published animal studies suggest are levels of concern for ongoing exposure. When we tested aged pans, the emissions were barely measurable.

Health concerns have led to what manufacturers claim is PFOA-free nonstick cookware. For our latest report on cookware, we tested several products marketed as PFOA-free, including the 10-piece Swiss Diamond Reinforced cookware, $500, and the 10-piece Earth Pan With Sand Flow, $190, both of which scored highly in the ratings.

To minimize exposure to any chemicals that might be released from nonstick cookware, ventilate your kitchen well, and to extend the useful life of your pots and pans, don't place empty cookware over very high heat. And as soon as your pans begin to flake, dispose of them. —Kimberly Janeway | | Twitter | Forums | Facebook

Essential reading: Check out our free buyer's guide to cookware and the latest cookware ratings (available to subscribers). And if you're concerned about other chemicals that might be lurking in products you buy, read " Toxins in the News: A Glossary," from the Consumer Reports Safety blog.

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