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27 September 2011

Non stick cookware - a cautionary tale

A cautionary tale

So far this story has followed a plot-line similar to that of so many human-created chemicals.  Invented by accident, its benefits are found to make life easier or more enjoyable for people - and more pofitable for companies.  The product is released on the world without caution, before proper testing of its health and environmental impacts.  Decades later, the chemical is found to be harmful in its manufacture or use.  The company knows this, but covers it up, until a group of concerned citizens fights for long enough to gain the attention of Government regulatory bodies.  Think CFCs, cigarettes, BPA, DDT ...

It is the tale of a synthetic fluropolymer called Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) - most well known by the DuPont brand name Teflon - along with its stablemate PFOA.  Among the many uses for PTFE is making non stick cookware.  PFOA, which is cancer causing and lethal to birds, is used in the manufacture of PTFE.  It is also used to make oil and water-repellent coatings on carpet, textiles, leather and paper, like microwave popcorn bags.

PTFE was invented accidentally in 1938 by a scientist who was attempting to make a new CFC refrigerant. In the early 60's Marion A. Trozzolo, who had been using the substance on scientific utensils, marketed the first US-made Teflon coated frying pan, "The Happy Pan." (Wikipedia)

In 2004, DuPont (who still uses PFOA in the manufacture of PTFE) paid US$300 million to 50,000 residents living near one of its US plants.  The residents had brought a class action claiming it was responsible for contaminating local water supplies with PFOA, causing birth defects and other health hazards.

In 2006, a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientific advisory board recommended PFOA be labelled a 'likely carcinogen' (cancer-causing) in humans.  The EPA asked DuPont, and seven other companies that use PFOA in manufacturing processes, to phase out its use. DuPont has agreed to take steps to make sure that by the year 2015, the chemical would not be released into the environment from its manufacturing plants, though it has not agreed to stop using it, or to stop making Teflon. The problem for Dupont is, as it stands now, it cannot make Teflon without this chemical, though it says it is looking for a substitute.  Quoted from an excellent article by Peter Lavelle on the Australian ABC website The Pulse.

It further transpires that DuPont had known for several decades that PFOA is harmful and kept quiet about it!  The EPA did at least fine DuPont for this behaviour (ref: The Washington Post) .

Are Teflon and other PTFE containing non stick pans safe?

The Peter Lavelle article summarises: 
...non-stick fry pans can release toxins. At high temperatures Teflon is known to give off a cocktail of 15 types of toxic particles and gases, including trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) and phosgene. These chemicals are known to be poisonous to birds. And in humans they cause headaches, chills, backache, and fever - a condition known as 'Teflon flu'.
DuPont admits this, but it says in humans the condition is reversible, and in any case it only occurs at high temperatures, not during normal cooking use.

Government authorities and DuPont say that Teflon and other PTFE non stick pans and cookware are safe as long as you cook at low to medium heat, do not heat the pan empty, don't allow oils to smoke, etc etc.

I would be particularly cautious about cheap "no name" brands of non stick pans.  I imagine the quality of the coating would be questionable and more easily broken down into toxins, plus there is little accountability from the manufacturer. 

Wikipedia explains:
At 200 °C PTFE is detectable and it evolves several fluorocarbon gases. It begins to deteriorate after the temperature of cookware reaches about 260 °C, and decomposes above 350 °C (662 °F). These degradation by-products can be lethal to birds, and can cause flu-like symptoms in humans.

Meat is usually fried between 200 and 230 °C, and most oils will start to smoke before a temperature of 260 °C is reached - although refined safflower oil and avocado oil have a higher smoke point than 260 °C so you wouldn't know. Empty cookware can also exceed this temperature upon heating.

Safe non stick cookware alternatives

Biome simply supports the precautionary principle - better safe than sorry.  We also aim to question any use of synthetic chemicals and whether there is a safe, more natural alternative.  I also have no idea how you would tell what temperature your non stick pan had reached?

All cookware uses some form of metal and synthetic process to manufacture the pan, unless we're going to cook over an open fire on sticks, or use the sun to cook an egg on a rock!  Unless you can think of other methods...?

Glass is the safest of materials, but it is certainly not non-stick, as proven by hours of scrubbing lasagne of my glass Pyrex dish.

We have chosen the Neoflam non-stick cookware range that is now stocked in both our stores and online.

Neoflam is a cast aluminum cookware coated with Ecolon™ non-stick coating. Ecolon is a ceramic based coating which is mostly made of silicon dioxide (also known as silica or SiO2), a material most commonly found in nature such as stone and sand. No emissions are released at any temperature and there are no heavy metals such as Cadmium, Lead and Mercury in the coating.

Aside from the great features below, I love cooking with Neoflam!  The fry pan is a joy to use - lightweight and easy to clean.  I've tried other safe non-stick cookware that is much heavier and unweildy.  I love that it is ovenproof also.  A friend who is a Chinese chef was delighted with his Neoflam wok. He said the "fried rice was dancing"!

  • Highly durable and scratch resistant - non stick coating lasts longer than conventional non stick
  • Oven safe
  • Has the benefits of cast iron thick base cookware, but is actually lightweight
  • Great value prices compared with other brands marketed as premium options
  • Ecolon coated cookware uses less energy and achieves faster cooking times due to better thermal conductivity
  • Less C02 emissions than Teflon manufacturing

According to Neoflam, most PTFE coating can only withstand up to 4H pencil testing. PTFE coating releases chemicals at 240°C. On the contrary, Ecolon can withstand 8H hardness testing and will not melt up to 450°C.

Ecolon coated cookware can cook an egg without using any oil. And clean up is a breeze too, both inside and outside.  Ecolon's non-stick coating performance may appear to be slightly less than a PTFE-based non-stick coating. However, Ecolon's advantage comes from its durability, maintaining the same non-stick performance even after repeated use.

See the full range of Neoflam non stick cookware at Biome Eco Stores.

Author & Editor

Tracey Bailey is the founder of Biome Eco Stores and mother of two. After working in corporate communications and starting a family, she made a choice to be part of the solution to our planet's future and started Biome Eco Stores. Tracey is passionate about educating the community about living eco-friendly and sustainable lives through her extended product, chemical, health and environmental knowledge.

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