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September 13, 2011
By Rachel Koller
What’s So Sticky About Nonstick Cookware?
Most of us have heard of problems with nonstick pans, but many people are confused about the issues and how to find better alternatives for cookware. Here is information you can use to shop smarter for pots, pans, and bakeware.
All the buzz about avoiding nonstick coated pans boils down to this: reduce demand for polluting chemicals. Perfluorinated compounds, (PFCs) commonly used to manufacture nonstick coatings, persist in the environment for years – decades, perhaps indefinitely – and they are linked to serious health effects. PFC chemicals are found in the blood of polar bears and 95% of all humans. If consumers say “no” to PFC coated pans, we reduce demand for this polluting chemical and increase demand for safer alternatives.
Aside from the manufacturing process being a source of PFCs, once the pan is in your kitchen there are some issues: when PFC coated pans are heated over 450 degrees, (studies have shown this is easy to achieve by pre-heating on high for several minutes) toxic fumes are emitted that can kill birds and give people flu-like symptoms in the short-term. PFCs are linked to long-term health effects including cancer, immune system and reproductive problems.
“Perfluorinated compounds” is a mouthful to pronounce or remember – Teflon is the familiar brand name of the perfluorinated compound PTFE invented by DuPont. It’s important to note that nonstick cookware is only one slice of the Teflon pie – other products that use these chemicals include Gore-Tex fabric, stain resistant treatments on carpets and fabrics, and the shiny inner coating on cardboard food packaging like pizza or french fry boxes.
Take inventory of any PFC coated cookware in your kitchen. Throw away those that are scratched or chipping. Pans in good shape and used carefully should pose limited risk. We held on to our All-Clad nonstick skillet for occasional use, but pitched a no-brand nonstick crepe pan and a few other nonstick items of lesser quality. Be careful not to pre-heat an empty PFC coated pan, or use high heat when cooking to avoid the fumes.
Safer cookware options: top picks are cast iron, enamel coated cast iron, and stainless steel. The NRDC has recommendations on shopping for these options here. Beyond those three, anodized aluminum is an alternative. In my kitchen, I mostly use All-Clad stainless steel, Lodge cast iron skillets (I really like the small 8″ skillet, even for eggs!) and a cast iron griddle. I prefer these choices because they are virtually unbreakable and will last forever, instead of being doomed to a landfill in a couple years like most nonstick items are. Plus, cast iron is an inexpensive cookware option.
A side note about aluminum: some people avoid aluminum because it was once linked to Alzheimer’s disease in the 1960s and 70s. Current research demonstrates no causation between aluminum and Alzheimers (see myth#4 from the Alzheimer’s Association), good news for those who like anodized aluminum cookware.
To compare cookware materials check out this summary from Clemson University. It includes discussion of all the common cookware options including aluminum, pottery, copper and more. I should point out that in the section on nonstick coatings, the Clemson information says “A coated pan heated for long periods at high temperatures will give off fumes, but these are less toxic than fumes given off by ordinary cooking oils.” This might come as a surprise, but it is true – cooking oils have smoke points beyond which they give off toxic fumes and harmful free radicals. If you are interested in learning more about this, Whole Foods Market has a helpful guide to oils.
Don’t forget to consider what you put in the oven. Teflon coated bakeware (muffin tins, cookie sheets, etc) is ubiquitous. For a durable and safer option choose stainless steel baking alternatives like these from American Kitchen. I’ve been very happy with these products – high quality for a reasonable price. Pyrex glass bakware is also a good option.
New generation “green” nonstick pans. There are nonstick pans available that don’t use PFCs – look for claims like “100% PFOA and PTFE free” and “ceramic coated”. Recently the NY Times Green Blog highlighted one of these options, the Ozeri Green Earth Pan. Other similar pans include GreenPan, and Beka Eco-Logic. If you prefer nonstick, choose the ceramic coated versions. This is leading technology – so there is no 100% guarantee these processes are “safe” for people or the environment – but they are an improvement over what we do know about the consequences of PFC coated pan manufacturing.
photo used under creative commons from m kasahara
Now that the weather is warm and the sun shines (at least some days here in Seattle) my 3 year old daughter wants to play outside all day. Sun safety for kids requires some strategy – how do we balance getting some much-needed vitamin D, while protecting the skin from harmful UV rays? How to pick a safer sunscreen lotion?
My strategy begins with choosing a trusted sunscreen. I pick from the Environmental Working Group’s Best Beach & Sport Sunscreens. These products have been evaluated for providing broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB-sunburn) protection with fewer hazardous chemicals that penetrate the skin. Badger and Aubrey Organic’s are two sunscreens that we’ve been happy with. I don’t believe it’s necessary to have separate lotions for kids and adults – I just pick one that ranks well on EWG’s safety criteria for the whole family. I buy an extra to send with my daughter to her daycare – they let parents BYO sunscreen, which is great.
Even with a EWG-ranked sunscreen, it’s a good idea to use any chemical sunscreen in combination with other methods of keeping UV rays off the skin. I definitely use sunscreen when needed, but also know that the safest sun protection is shade and clothing – no chemicals, safe or not safe, to absorb into the skin! If there are ways to play in the shade, and avoid the need for re-applying, we do. For portable shade and shelter, we bought a Sport-Brella. It’s great in the backyard and on beach outings. Heading indoors during the intense mid-day sun is also a good strategy. For clothing protection, we try to wear hats, swim shirts and shorts for more coverage. Type of fabric does make a difference – here are some helpful tips from the Skin Cancer Foundation: Tightly-woven fabric best protects the skin. Hold clothes up to the light. If you can see through it, UVR can penetrate it. Darker-colored and brightly colored fabrics (say, oranges and reds) are more sun-protective than pastel or pale ones, especially white T-shirts. And looser-fitting clothes surpass tight clothes that stretch a lot, allowing light through.
It’s a balancing act – encouraging free play in the great outdoors, avoiding sunburn, and using chemical sunscreens in moderation. It takes some planning and the right gear but the effort pays off with lots of fun in the sun.