Time to toss your nonstick pans? Maybe not

Russ Parsons
The California Cook
Should you get rid of your nonstick pans? Maybe not

More than 200 scientists from 38 countries say we should avoid a family of chemical compounds that is found in nonstick cookware. So does that mean we should toss all those slippery skillets?

The answer is more complicated than you might think. Beware, many acronyms and some math follow.

The so-called Madrid Statement published in the online journal Environmental Health Perspectives this month makes a strong argument for tossing.

The compounds in question are called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASes for short). They’re used in a wide variety of applications, from flame retardants to the grease-proof lining of food to-go cartons as well as the nonstick lining of pots and pans.

The problem with these PFASes is that there is evidence that some of them can cause health problems, including liver issues, disrupting the immune and endocrine systems and causing organ tumors as well as being associated with several specific types of cancers, among other things.

They also last for a long time, in the body and in the environment.

But wait, says the FluoroCouncil, a trade group for the technology. In a response to EHP, they say the science the Madrid Statement is based on refers to a type of PFASes called “long chain,” which the industry has been phasing out for the last several years in favor of “short chain” PFASes that have been found to be less toxic than the old version.

“The FluoroCouncil could support many of [the Madrid Statement] policy recommendations if they were limited to long-chain PFASs,” they say in their response. “However, the application of these recommendations to a broad universe of PFASs simply cannot be supported.”

Another point of view comes from Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society and a columnist for the Montreal Gazette.

"The dose makes the poison" is one of the most important rules of toxicology (though these days it is probably the most forgotten). This means that dangerous things in small amounts can be harmless while even the safest things in large amounts can be damaging. That’s why the traces of naturally occurring arsenic in celery are fine, though drinking too much water can make you sick.

Schwarcz reported on a little experiment. The author ground the surface of a nonstick pan with a wire brush and analyzed it for the amount of PFOA (the most worrisome of the PFASes) it contained. He then calculated the amount that would be extracted during cooking and compared it with the lowest safe dose (the lowest dose at which any adverse effect is noted, divided by a safety factor of 100).

He found even for a 20-pound child that factor was still more than 1,500 times more than the maximum safe dose that would come from the pan.

“So the bottom line here is that exposure to PFOA from a Teflon coated pan is insignificant,” Schwarcz concludes.

Should you trash those pots and pans? Not necessarily, though there are some common-sense safety precautions you could take if you are concerned.

Never overheat nonstick pans -- at temperatures above 500 degrees the chemicals become more volatile.

Buy the heaviest nonstick pans you can find -- they heat up more slowly.

Don't use nonstick pans that have become deeply scratched.

And perhaps most obvious: only use nonstick when you have to -- sauteing delicate fish, for example, or cooking eggs. In most cases, though, good cooking technique and a well-seasoned regular pan will be all you’ll need.

Are you a food geek? Follow me on Twitter @russ_parsons1

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