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My husband's cast iron skillet: The grosser it looks, the better it is to cook on!

I recently participated in a food-related Twitter party. During our discussion about Thanksgiving turkey and whether or not stuffing is safe to eat, the host asked about cookware: what were people cooking their turkeys in? I immediately tweeted that I used to cook in a non-stick Teflon pan, but about two years ago I banned the substance completely — and not just for cooking my Thanksgiving meal. People started asking why — what was so bad about non-stick they wanted to know. Thinking I had a blog post of my own I could tweet, I did a search on this site and was surprised to see that I haven’t covered that topic yet. I was dismayed since, for those trying to lead a more healthy and natural life, banning non-stick is as simple and inexpensive as you can get. So without further ado, here’s my take — with a little research thrown in — on why tossing the Teflon (and other non-stick pots and pans) is a really smart move for the environment and for your health.

First, a little background. You and I call it Teflon, but what we’re really talking about is perfluorooctanoic acid (or PFOA), which is what manufacturers use to make all your brownie pans, frying pans, and turkey roasters non-stick. You can also find the chemical, which is sometimes referred to as C8, inside of packaged foods containers such as microwave popcorn bags and in many other consumer products. (The Environmental Protection Agency has a page dedicated to PFOA that’s got a lot more information. It’s certainly worth a read. You can find it here.)

Here are the problems that the EPA had with PFOA, taken directly from its site:

  • PFOA is very persistent in the environment; it doesn’t break down and go away.
  • It is found everywhere. You can see very low levels both in the environment and in the blood of the general U.S. population
  • It sticks around inside of us for very long time, too. Once you ingest it or breathe it in, it’s in there.
  • It has been found to cause “developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals.” (And in humans, too!)

If you’re like me, the last item in the list might be the one that’s giving you pause. What kind of adverse effects, you might want to know. Well, according to research studies PFOA can be linked to:

  • Lower birth rate and size: Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that babies with higher concentrations of the chemical had smaller heads and lower body weights. Read the study here.
  • Infertility: Women with higher levels of PFOA took longer to get pregnant, according to a study out of the UCLA School of Public Health.
  • Elevated cholesterol: Kids with higher levels of PFOA have higher cholesterol levels, according to a study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.
  • Thyroid disease: A “study revealed that people with higher concentrations of PFOA in their blood have higher rates of thyroid disease. The researchers analyzed samples from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s nationally representative National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES),” according to researchers.
  • ADHD: In this study, Boston University School of Public Health researchers found “increased odds of ADHD in children with higher serum PFC levels.” (PFOA is one of the PFCs they tracked.)

There have also been studies linking PFOA to cancer, although most of the research has been on the effects of PFOA released into the environment as a byproduct of manufacturing. No matter, the research is so compelling that, way back in 2006, the EPA asked manufacturers to phase out the chemical. Eight large non-stick manufacturers complied. The voluntary ban will be achieved by 2015, but that doesn’t do anything for all the folks who have non-stick cookware in their homes already unless they proactively get rid of everything non-stick they own.

That’s exactly what we did. Despite the fact that my husband loved his non-stick griddle, we tossed it along with four frying pans, a brownie pan, cake pans, cookie sheets, and a roasting pan. We actually threw it in the recycling bin rather than donating it to make sure it wasn’t going to be around to potentially make someone else sick. Today, we use either cast iron or stainless steel when we cook, bake, or fry, and I didn’t spend a fortune to make this happen.

My husband, for instance, got a $30 cast iron griddle to replace his beloved non-stick one. (No, he did not like it in the beginning, but has grown to love it.) I bought it from my local Target, and was thrilled to discover it was actually made in the United States, which is a rarity these days. Target also carries a number of other cast iron Lodge products including loaf pans, skittles, and fryers. (Note: I have nothing to do with Target or Lodge and am not being paid to say that. I just like the products.) I picked up some really inexpensive Pyrex brownie and cake pans at the Pyrex outlet. I got my stainless stuff as hand-me-downs, and was actually pleased to find that I had a plain stainless cookie sheet already sitting in my cabinet as well as a nice stainless frying pan.

From a cooking perspective, I love the fact that the glass and stainless stuff cleans up really easily. It’s also adding some extra flavor to my baking since I am forced to grease and flour my cake pans and butter up the brownie pan. The cast iron griddle, which is fully seasoned now, gives off a warm, homey smell when things are cooking on it. Plus, I love the extra boost of iron the entire family gets with our pancakes and eggs. (The American Dietetic Association confirms that cooking foods in or on cast iron increases the amount of iron in foods.)

Of course, most people aren’t going to be able to toss all their non-stick cookware into the garbage like I did, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something. I challenge everyone to replace one pan — the one you use the most — by the end of the year since it can make a huge difference in your PFOA exposure. Ready to give it a shot?

This post is how I am participating in this week’s Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays, two awesome blog carnivals dedicated to promoting the use and consumption of — what else? — real food.

6 Responses to “Teflon and Non-Stick Pans: Ban Them in Your House”

  1. Sara says:

    Hi Karen — I applaud the idea of creating a safer home, and because there’s so much misinformation out there about the PFOA and the Teflon® brand, I’m not surprised that you are concerned. I’m a representative of DuPont though, and hope you’ll let me share some information with you and your readers so that everyone can make truly informed decisions.

    Regulatory agencies, consumer groups and health associations all have taken a close look at the Teflon® brand. This article highlights what they found — the bottom line is that you can use Teflon® non-stick without worry.


    I’d truly be glad to share additional information about it if you are interested, and appreciate your consideration of this comment. Cheers, Sara.

  2. kb says:

    I like having a conversation about this topic, however I have a few things I’d like to point out about this magazine article. First, it was written almost five years ago. (Issue date is June 2007, but they probably did the study around January of that year.) Second, the phrase “probably don’t contribute that much” isn’t enough for me. We’ve got a ton of recent studies that say PFOA is contributing to a raft of health and behavior issues, so why would a parent take even the slightest amount of risk with their child. The final point: I know DuPont is one of the manufacturers who is removing PFOA from the non-stick equation. If there really wasn’t an issue with the substance, why bother going through the expense and trouble of doing so. Even if you say it’s because you want to eliminate PFOA in the supply chain, it’s still worth it to me to switch to a different method of cooking. (And FWIW: I have also eliminated other sources of PFOA from our house including microwave popcorn, flame retardants, and stain-protectors. (But that’s another blog post!)

    For those who would like to see a narrative history of DuPont’s history with PFOA, I highly recommend this case study from The Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, which was last updated in August to reflect a $8.3 million settlement for a group of people living near DuPont’s Chamber Works plant in Salem County, N.J.

    Finally, I’d like to point to an Environmental Working Group paper about PFOAs and DuPont’s involvement in the substance getting into the environment. Pretty compelling stuff even if it is a little dated.

    PFCs: Global Contaminants: PFOA pollutes air, drinking water, & food

  3. none says:

    i have only one thing to add dont throw them in the recycling bin to be melted down and have the teflon fumes released into the air.toss them in the garbage because that is want they are.

  4. Milton platt says:

    Just a followup to my previous post. I wasn’t trying to dissuade people from abandoning teflon. After reading the post it seemed a little harsh. I was only trying to suggest that you back up any and all claims with links to science backing up those claims.

    I work in a major research hospital and the following is prominantly posted in the lobby of the research tower:

    Without proof, you are just another person with an opinion.

    Also, we have a Cockatoo who has lived with us for many years. It is a well known fact among bird fanciers that overheating a teflon pan will most likely kill any birds within the building.
    While that doesn’t translate into proof of harm to humans, I don’t feel the need to push my luck.

  5. AL says:

    @Sara, the DuPong rep: What a a load of BS answer! There is NO such thing as a safe man-made chemical!

  6. Diane says:

    I applaud Dupont for correcting their product. When a company realizes it made a mistake in the manufacturing of a product and takes action, it should be a hearty congratulations, not a scolding. However, I use only cast iron products now. I don’t have a problem with anything sticking because whenever something does stick, it is easily washable. Just turn down the burner and slow things up and things won’t stick so much! I love the even heat distribution of cast iron, and the memories it brings back of wonderful meals at my grandmother’s house. She even baked cakes in the frying pans. She used Corningware, or pyrex to do the cassaroles and cobbler pies. There is absolutely nothing batter than cast iron cooking products and glass for all your culinary delights!

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