Like penicillin, Coca-Cola’s secret recipe, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the discovery of Teflon’s nonstick powers was a total and complete accident.
Back in 1938, a chemist was trying to concoct freezing agents when he and his associates quickly recognized that polytetrafluoroethylene—the mistakenly formed chemical compound dubbed “Teflon”—was one of the slipperiest substances … ever.
A few years later, in 1946, Teflon earned its trademark and ever since, the iconic nonstick pan has been the prized possesion of home cooks everywhere. One 2006 Good Housekeeping poll found that 90 percent of pots and pans sold had the nonstick coating.
Here’s the very bad news: nonstick materials like Teflon and some plastics used in cooking ware contain perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C8. And C8 has been linked to serious health side effects like heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, various birth defects, and neurodevelopmental disorders in children.
There’s evidence that the chemical company Dupont, which uses and produces C8 en masse, knowingly dumped toxic waste full of the compound into the environment surrounding its plants. According to reports, decades of dumping exposed thousands living around a Dupont factory in West Virginia to C8, and many residents in that area reported unusually high instances of birth defects, cancer, unexplained illnesses, and untimely deaths. Even after Dupont researchers found that C8 could be lethal to humans, the company did little to decrease their chemical footprint or warn consumers of the probable side effects.
Dupont has since settled in court with some of those affected, and has publicly agreed to phase out C8 by the end of this year. But at this point, exposure is virtually inescapable. “We don’t realize, it literally is everywhere; it’s everywhere in our household products,” says Callie Lyons, author of Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof, and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8 said in an interview with The Awl. And it’s not just in the pans we cook our food in—it’s in the water, too. The EPA has tested and found water systems contaminated with C8 in 27 states, which affects nearly 6.5 million people. According to Lyons, “The National Institutes of Health can’t find somebody to test that [isn’t contaminated]. You just can’t find a person that doesn’t already have C8 in their blood at this point in time.”
Pretty scary, considering nonstick pans are considered a staple in most kitchens. Users of aluminum or copper cookware are safe from C8 exposure, but they’re still exposed to potential toxins thanks to that chemicals leach out of pots and pans over time and as they’re exposed to extreme temperatures. Long term exposure through cooking may increase risk. And even with an anodized version of the metal to decrease risk of chemical exposure to food, aluminum pans are dangerous because the metal itself is deemed toxic by the CDC.
Copper cookware—although it’s gorgeous—poses a risk, too. There’s a small chance that cooking directly on a copper surface could increase copper toxicity. Adults need a relatively small amount of the metal, about 900 micrograms a day. Copper toxicity can lead to respiratory issues, jaundice, and permanent lung scarring. Cooking highly acidic foods (like tomato sauce or citrus) can cause leaching, which could in turn mean you’ll unknowingly exceed the recommended daily value.
Although it’s disheartening to realize that most of us have been exposed to this dangerous chemical for most of our lives, there are steps that you can take to minimize your exposure and decrease your risk.
First, get better cookware. Stainless steel, cast iron, and ceramic cookware are among the safest options because they’re durable and far less prone to leaching.
Second, take care of your new pots and pans. When cleaning stainless steel or cast iron, be gentle. Scratching up the surface with abrasive cleaners will make it more challenging to cook on (i.e. definitely not nonstick!)—and it can increase the amount of metal that leaks into food. When cared for properly, these tools will last way longer than Teflon; a well-seasoned cast iron pan can be used for generations!
Photo credit: Paul Delmont