There’s no question that non-stick Teflon cookware is a masterwork of convenience. Thanks to a special chemical coating, food doesn’t stick to the surface of these Teflon pans, making clean-up a breeze. However, there have long been concerns over the safety of using such chemicals in cookware and the effects they might have on the human body. So are these dangers actually real and how can you lessen the risk? In this article, we’ll look at a few of the fears people have about Teflon and, where warranted, will tell you how to keep yourself and others safe from the potential risks of the product.
The main reason behind this fear is a substance known as perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA. PFOA is an artificial chemical used in the production of Teflon. Some studies have found that PFOA may increase one’s risk for developing a variety of illnesses, including thyroid disorders, kidney and liver disease, and even testicular and breast cancer.
However, there are a couple reasons why the threat may not be as dire as it sounds. For one, in 2006, the US Environmental Protection Agency launched an initiative to remove PFOA from Teflon products. Because of this initiative, all Teflon-treated products have been PFOA-free since 2013. But what if you have cookware purchased before then? The good news is that though PFOA is used in the production of Teflon, almost all of it is burned away before the product is complete, which means very little, if any at all, actually made it onto your Teflon cookware. And again, if you don’t feel comfortable using a product that may contain even trace amounts of PFOA, any Teflon-treated cookware purchased after 2013 is guaranteed not to contain any amount of the chemical.
The fear that the Teflon-coating of your cookware may flake off is a valid one. Cheaply-made Teflon products are especially likely to have this problem and even the Teflon coating of well-made products can chip away if used improperly. But is this actually dangerous? In truth, small Teflon flakes are very unlikely to cause harm if ingested and will probably just pass through the digestive tract with no problems. Really, the worst part of chipping off your cookware’s Teflon-coating is that it might lose its non-stick properties! So how can you prevent this tragic loss of utility?
The two most effective ways to prevent flaking are to ensure you only buy high-quality Teflon products and to avoid scraping your Teflon-coated cookware with any metal utensils. But again, this advice is less for your health and more for your budget; it may cost a little extra to ensure your Teflon cookware is well-made, but it would cost even more to constantly replace cookware that’s lost its non-stick shine.
The final fear regarding Teflon cookware is that pans can overheat to a temperature that’s too hot for the Teflon to handle, leading the chemical to produce toxic fumes. So is there anything behind this fear? Actually, there is! At about 600 degrees Fahrenheit, Teflon will release toxic fumes that can cause flu-like symptoms among humans and that are lethal to birds! In fact, many bird owners avoid Teflon-treated cookware entirely for this reason.
Fortunately, avoiding such a dangerous situation is as simple as cooking on medium heat rather than high, though you may enter the danger zone by accident, if you forget to turn off the burner or leave it unattended. Aside from keeping an eye on your stovetop, the best thing you can do is to protect yourself is to avoid using Teflon cookware for recipes that require very high heat or preheating, such as for browning or searing meats. And if you do accidentally overheat your cookware and start to feel sick, turn off your stove and open your doors and windows to air out your home. As soon as you have some fresh air, the symptoms should disappear fairly quickly.
Nowadays, cookware with a ceramic nonstick coating is becoming more popular as a nonstick Teflon alternative. This ceramic nonstick coating doesn’t release fumes at high heats, making it somewhat safer than Teflon. However, it’s also less durable than Teflon and you may find that it loses its nonstick properties faster. Still, if you’re worried about the potential of toxic fumes, this option may bring you some peace of mind.
Though Teflon is relatively durable, it will start to break down after repeated exposure to hard utensils and heat. Again, while there aren’t any pressing health concerns associated with flaking Teflon coating, it does mean that your cookware will no longer be nonstick after awhile! It’s recommended that you replace your Teflon cookware every 3-5 years to avoid having a flaky pan.
Cleaning Teflon cookware is as simple as a few drops of dish soap on a sponge. While putting it in the dishwasher probably won’t cause any immediate damage, a gentler hand-cleaning may allow it to last longer before the Teflon coating starts to degrade. Finally, avoid any harsh, metallic scrubbers like steel wool—these can scrape the Teflon coating right off of your cookware!
In most cases, Teflon-treated cookware is quite safe to use and many of the more dramatic fears surrounding it are overblown. That said, improperly using Teflon-treated cookware can still lead to hazards, not to mention ruin its nonstick properties! We hope this guide has helped put a few fears to bed and empowered you to keep you and your cookware at your best.
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