The link between non-stick cookware and cancer is not proven in humans, though there are definite health risks associated with non-stick cookware. First, the chemical perflourooctanoaic acid (PFOA) has been linked to cancer in lab animals and is found in the environment and the U.S. population’s blood. Second, non-stick coatings emit harmful gasses when overheated, which can sicken people and pets. Understanding the real risks associated non-stick cookware will allow you to enjoy its benefits safely.
Perflourooctanoaic acid (PFOA) is a synthetic chemical used to manufacture non-stick cookware coatings, such as Teflon, as well as microwavable popcorn bags and pizza delivery boxes. The Environmental Protection Agency explains that PFOA itself is a non-stick coating, but PFOA may be present on cookware in trace amounts because of manufacturing impurities. According to a 3M study cited in the 2005 New York Times article, "Is There an Extra Ingredient in Nonstick Pans?", PFOA was found in the blood of 90 percent of subjects tested. This is concerning because it is unclear how the chemical is entering people's bloodstreams, and PFOA is not quickly eliminated from the body or environment.
PFOA And Cancer
The American Cancer Society explains that non-stick cookware itself does not cause cancer, but PFOA may pose a threat to humans, though the risk of cancer is not fully understood. Studies using rodents demonstrated that PFOA is linked to liver cancer and tumors in the testes, mammary glands and pancreas. Since it is unclear how we are consuming PFOA and whether it is linked to cancer in humans, the EPA does not recommend consumers take specific steps to reduce PFOA exposure.
According to the American Cancer Society, the major health threat associated with non-stick cookware is “polymer fume fever” (also knows as “Teflon flu”), which is caused by inhaling fumes released by overheated non-stick cookware. In humans, inhaling these fumes may produce flu-like symptoms, but they are potentially fatal to birds. The Environmental Working Group explains that at 680°F, which an empty pan reaches in just three minutes, non-stick coatings emit six gases, two of which are carcinogenic.
As with any type of cookware, non-stick pots and pans should be washed thoroughly before their first use. To avoid polymer fume inhalation, do not heat up an empty pan. For the same reason, do not use non-stick cookware for recipes requiring high heat or broiling. Also, do not cook with non-stick cookware if you have pet birds.
EarthEasy.com outlines several safe cookware options. First, stainless steel is non-reactive and non-corrosive, meaning it will not emit fumes when heated or leech chemicals into your food. Cast iron is also a very safe choice, and when well-seasoned, it can be as non-stick as Teflon. Ceramic enameled cast iron and stainless steel-lined copper cookware are also very safe, though they tend to be expensive.
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