How Nonstick Cookware Works

PTFE Safety Debate

While cookware using polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) has been around since the 1960s, its safety has become the subject of debate in recent years. The majority of the discussion has revolved around a substance called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. This acid is used in the production of many fluoropolymers, including PTFE.

In 2003, the Environmental Working Group petitioned the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to put labels on PTFE-coated cookware to warn of potential safety concerns for both pet birds and humans [source: Houlihan and White]. The petition cited multiple cases of bird deaths due to fumes from PTFE nonstick coatings along with two specific incidents of polymer fume fever -- temporary flulike symptoms -- in humans. After review, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission denied the Environmental Working Group's petition to require warning labels on PTFE-based nonstick cookware [source: Chemical Market Reporter].

In January 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft risk assessment on the health effects of PFOA. The EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics formed a Science Advisory Board to review the draft's findings. According to the review letter, three-fourths of the panel found that PFOA fit the EPA's guidelines for a "likely to be carcinogenic" substance. [source: Cory-Slechta and Morgan]. But while the EPA is continuing to study PFOA's effects on humans and the environment and has a program to eliminate PFOA and related chemical emissions and products by 2015, its current stand is that there is no reason for consumers to stop using PTFE-based nonstick cookware [source: United States Environmental Protection Agency]. The final product is PTFE -- not PFOA.

Even though the CPSC and the EPA haven't determined a need for warning labels on nonstick cookware or pulled it from the market, it's still a good idea to follow a few guidelines in the kitchen. First, as DuPont -- maker Teflon, one of the best known nonstick cookware brands -- points out on its Web site, birds have delicate respiratory systems that can be affected by any fumes, not just those from nonstick cookware. For this reason, it's a good idea to keep birds out of the kitchen. Second, don't heat PFTE-coated pans beyond 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 degrees Celsius) or leave them unattended [source: DuPont]. It's also a good idea to replace your pans if their coatings are visibly deteriorating.

Newer nonstick technologies also offer an alternative to PTFE -- we'll look at a few of them next.