Is Non-stick Cookware Bad for the Environment?

Is Non-stick Cookware Bad for the Environment?

By Ant Langston | March 28, 2014


If you’ve ever ruined a saucepan by burning milk, or found that flipping omelettes is the hardest cooking skill out there, the chances are that you have invested in non-stick pans and trays to make life easier. Teflon, the material used to coat base metals and make our pans and other items non-stick was discovered in the 1930s, and was first introduced into the cooking market in 1954 by the French company Tefal. Now everyone is making non-stick pans and they are widely available in supermarkets and other retail stores. Despite the popularity of non-stick, there is growing concern that the pans themselves and the chemicals which they contain may be dangerous for the environment and our health.



The proper chemical name for Teflon is polytetrafluoroethylene, which unsurprisingly is often shortened to PTFE. It is this chemical which has the properties that stops your food adhering to the bottom of your pans. There have been numerous scientific studies linking the PTFE chemical to cancer, and many people avoid using non-stick altogether because of the concerns over health. However, as with all scientific studies it is worth doing a little more reading and making up your own mind as to whether the studies really stack up. It is known that if a non-stick pan is heating to over 300C, it may release fumes containing the PTFE, which if they are breathed in, could cause cancer at some point in the future. These fumes are particularly dangerous to pets as well as humans, and have been known to kill pet birds almost instantly. There is also the counter argument that using non-stick cookware means we have to use less butter or oil in the pan, and the potential risks of using a non-stick pan have to be balanced against the known health implications of cooking things in saturated fats.



The other chemical which often causes concern is perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. This chemical is not actually in the non-stick coating itself, but it is part of the manufacturing process. It is released into the atmosphere when the non-stick pans are made and can spread widely from the factory itself. PFOA has been shown to be carcinogenic in lab animals, and there is some early research to indicate that there may be a link between PFOA and male prostate cancer. This research is still at its very early stages, and more work needs to be done to establish whether there is a link or not. The main issue with PFOA is that unlike other chemicals, it does not break down or change its composition in any way when it gets into the open air, and it is this build-up of the chemical over time which is causing worry.



If you are concerned about non-stick pans and other cooking items in the home then the obvious answer is to throw all of the non-stick in the bin and go back to using standard stainless steel or cast iron pans. This is not a cheap option, but will get rid of any worries about the chemicals leaching out of the pans as you cook. If replacing all of your cake tins, sauce pans, frying pans and baking trays is not an option, then there are various other options for reducing any potential risk. Firstly, never pre-heat a non-stick pan before putting the food in, as when the pans are smouldering hot without any food in them is when it is most likely that they will start to leak PTFE. When you are cooking using your non-stick, resist the temptation to push the hob controls to their maximum to get the job done quicker; it is safer to cook at the lowest temperature which is required to cook the food and no higher. Keep any pet birds out of the kitchen while you are cooking, and have the room well ventilated with open windows where possible. If it’s too cold to have the windows open, use the extractor fan above the cooker to get rid of the fumes instead. Replace your cookware gradually, starting with things like muffin tins and baking trays as they are exposed to higher temperatures in the oven than items used on the hob.