By Maia Szalavitz, published on July 1, 2006 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
Cooks have been stirred up lately about nonstick cookware—worried that a chemical used in the manufacture of Teflon might harm those who prepare or eat food prepared in these pans.
Evidence suggests the chemical, known as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), may be a carcinogen, although it has not yet been proven to be dangerous to humans.
PFOA appears to linger in the environment, which may be why low levels of the chemical have been found in the blood of 95 percent of Americans. Some scientists are concerned that PFOA will be found harmful only after it has thoroughly polluted the environment.
So should you toss your Teflon pans, just in case? The answer is complicated. It may be that the pans in your house are much less of a problem than the pervasive presence of this chemical in the environment. Researchers believe the traces found in people come from air or water polluted during the manufacture of Teflon—not from using nonstick products.
However, says Robert Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and author of What Einstein Told His Cook, if Teflon-lined pans are heated to 600 degrees, "all kinds of toxic chemicals are released."
If you leave an empty, or a nearly empty, nonstick pan on a hot burner for a few minutes, he says, by the time you smell it in the next room, toxic fumes are in the air. The fumes can cause headaches and chills and even kill pet birds, which have sensitive lungs. If you do accidentally leave an empty pan over a flame, you should quickly air out the room. And if you frequently have this problem, nonstick cookware may not be for you.
For the most part, though, normal cooking does not seem to release the chemical. Even scratched pans don't have detectable levels of PFOA on the surface, DuPont's tests show.
Ted Emmett, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, is studying the effects of PFOA on people exposed to contaminated water near an Ohio Teflon plant. He has found that blood levels of PFOA in local residents are 60 to 80 times higher than in the general population.
The first phase of the research found no correlation between a person's PFOA blood levels and the risk of liver or thyroid disease. Additional studies found scant connection between the chemical and health problems—while one did find a link with prostate cancer, another did not. Although so far the data don't show that even high levels of PFOA cause harm, Emmett says more research is needed.
Sound scary? Consider that both Emmett and Wolke still cook with Teflon pans. The EPA says there's no reason to stop using them because of concern about PFOA. Still, the government has pressed manufacturers to reduce PFOA emissions in the next few years and eliminate them entirely by 2015.
Bottom line: Nonstick pans appear safe if used properly, but you probably don't want to live near a Teflon factory.