I bought a new set of cookware this month. Over 25 years ago I purchased a set of Circulon pots and pans and I don’t want to cook with them anymore.
A mishap in the kitchen left me wondering if it was worth my time to chisel off carbon residue stuck to the surface of two saucepans. I used the opportunity to investigate the nonstick surface of my Circulon pans, and then only needed a few minutes of research to make a decision.
AN ERA OF TRUST AND SCIENTIFIC NAIVETE
My generation was born in the age of “Better living through chemistry,” and now we literally live with the chemical fall out.
Decades ago consumers trusted scientists to harness the energy and resources of the universe to support mankind. Most considered detractors like Rachel Carson a nuisance despite being a trained scientist who worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service earlier in her career. She went on to publish Silent Spring in 1962 to challenge the use of pesticides and other practices of agricultural scientists and the government. Widely criticized in her day, I find her observations and work both inspiring and horrifying.
Today researchers measure engineered and naturally occurring chemicals and metabolites of chemicals in our bodies. Known as a “body burden”, this accumulating chemical footprint messes with our metabolism and who knows what else.
THE BODY’S BURDEN OF ENDOCRINE DISRUPTORS
Currently too many engineered industrial chemicals mess with the most fundamental biochemical processes of life. Research continues to reveal harm from exposure to the engineered chemicals since they function as endocrine disruptors or other inducers of cellular dysfunction. When it comes to nonstick surfaces, several chemicals known as polyfluorinated compounds used to manufacture nonstick cookware and other products are considered a problem.
The controversy over PFOA (the Teflon chemical formally known as perfluorooctanoic acid) stretches back decades. Recently a New York Times article exposed Dupont’s dubious behavior regarding the use and discharge of PFOA, reason enough to boycott consumer products made with the stuff. But what about cookware?
TEFLON CHEMICALS IN THE FRYING PAN
Chemicals from the breakdown of Teflon chemicals in cookware are toxic in humans with health effects from stroke and cancer to increased cholesterol. Thankfully I traded in my Teflon fry pan for cast iron awhile back. Instead, I use a cast iron skillet to cook my eggs.
However, I don’t have a good excuse for continuing to use my Circulon cookware the past few years. While all polyfluorinated compounds are under examination, the Circulon website maintains that their total non-stick system is completely safe and non- toxic. They go on to explain that Circulon non-stick is completely PFOA free since Dupont uses nonstick technologies to make PTFE non-stick without PFOA. At first pass, I am not convinced.
SCIENTISTS ARE CONCERNED
PTFE is short for polytetrafluoroethylene, a chemical that also confers a non-stick coating on a pan. Research demonstrates that PTFE is stable and nontoxic at lower temperatures, and begins to deteriorate after the temperature of cookware reaches about 260 °C (500 °F). While I’m left wondering if anyone ever measures the temperature of their cookware, Norwegian researchers report that PFOA and other fluorotelomer alcohols can be released from non-stick cookware under normal cooking temperatures, and they aren’t the only ones concerned.
In May of 2015 the Environmental Health Perspectives journal published The Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs). The document outlines opportunities for scientists, manufacturers and government agencies to limit harm. Scientists and other professionals from a variety of disciplines are concerned about the production and release into the environment of an increasing number of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs).
At the same time in a National Institutes of Health journal Linda S. Birnbaum of the Department of Health and Human Services and Philippe Grandjean of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health questioned if this group of chemicals should continue to be used in consumer products. Clearly more research is needed, but as a consumer I don’t need to wait for a definitive answer.
GUIDELINES FOR CONSUMERS
From my perspective consumers should be wary of claims for non-stick pans. The scientists behind the Madrid Statement note that many nonstick pans market themselves as PFOA-free, but will contain other polyfluorinated compounds. They advise consumers to contact the manufacturer and ask if it is free of all PFASs and fluorinated chemicals and fluorine.
Otherwise, the group recommends using aluminum or glass. Ceramic products can also work. And if you’re buying new cookware, the scientists recommend bypassing nonstick pans in favor of stainless steel or cast iron. I guess I’m all set. What about you?