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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2004
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Sierra Magazine
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Hearth & Home: Watched Pots
It's not just what you cook, it's what you cook in
by Elizabeth Larsen

As a working mother who likes to fix dishes a few steps more complicated than macaroni and cheese, I've picked my cookware based on whether it heats quickly and sautés evenly. But recent news reports about the potential hazards of nonstick pots and pans have made me wonder whether my need for convenience may be putting my family at risk.

It's been known for some time that the chemical used to make nonstick Teflon causes tumors in rats. The EPA has classified the compound, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), as carcinogenic to animals. In July, the agency charged Teflon-maker DuPont with illegally withholding, for up to 20 years, evidence that the chemical posed "substantial risk of injury to human health or the environment."

Fines may run as high as $300 million. The EPA also wants new studies to determine whether PFOA could cause thyroid disorders, birth defects, and cancer. PFOA--released into the air and water during the manufacturing process--is everywhere: It's been measured in seals in the Caspian Sea, in Alabama green beans, and in 19 out of 20 American children who were tested.

That's scary enough, but I also wanted to know if I was feeding my family toxic chemicals straight from the skillet. So I contacted Rich Purdy, who was an environmental scientist at 3M for 19 years. Now an organic farmer and activist working to curb the use of hazardous chemicals, Purdy says that when used correctly--never heated beyond a medium setting--Teflon itself does not pose a threat to human health. "But people are always in a hurry," he says. "They heat up to ‘high' and then back off."

When that happens, the polymers in the Teflon can break down and off-gas a nasty combination of dangerous chemicals. The Environmental Working Group reports that the surface temperature of a Teflon-coated pan heated on high for eight minutes on a conventional stove can reach 750 degrees Fahrenheit.

At that temperature, the pan could emit fumes that contain not only PFOA but also tetrafluoroethylene, another known animal carcinogen, and monofluoroacetic acid, which can be lethal to humans in low doses. At 887 degrees, Teflon releases perfluoroisobutene, a chemical warfare agent.

Canary and parrot owners have known for years that the fumes from nonstick surfaces, heated to as little as 325 degrees, can kill birds. DuPont acknowledges this fact on its Web site (although it asserts the danger threshold is 500 degrees) and advises Teflon users to always keep pet birds out of the kitchen. Scanpan, a popular nonstick titanium brand, also urges customers to remove birds from the cooking area and to keep the kitchen well-ventilated.

As for the threats to human health, DuPont insists that the fumes from Teflon are no more harmful than those emitted by overheated oil or butter and that "there is no evidence indicating adverse health effects related to low levels of exposure to PFOA." But Purdy is skeptical. "Fumes that are killing birds are affecting you," he says. (Dupont also contends that Teflon flakes pass right through the body, and so cause no harm, but the Environmental Working Group, which has conducted extensive research on Teflon, is not aware of any data that supports this claim.)

The fact that a possible carcinogen had been hanging on my cooking rack caused me to question my other cookware. Was my enamel casserole releasing toxic chemicals into my family's dinners? It turns out that any enamelware with a red, orange, or yellow glaze is likely to contain cadmium.

In addition to causing unappetizing things like vomiting, nausea, liver injury, and renal failure, researchers at the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University have determined that exposure to cadmium may be a direct risk factor for developing breast cancer. The United States strictly regulates cadmium, but problems arise when you go to Mexico or other countries and buy some of that gorgeous crockery that uses a cadmium color on the interior. To be safe, buy only the enamelware that is white or cream on the inside.

I next turned my attention to my cast-iron skillet and found that the pioneers had it right: Helen Brittin, a professor of food and nutrition at Texas Tech University, assured me that cooking with cast iron adds significant levels of iron to the foods that are prepared in them. Too much iron can be poisonous, but for iron-poor North Americans, it's often a healthy bonus. Stainless steel is also a safe choice, although not for people who are allergic to nickel.

Anodized aluminum, the metal used by Calphalon and other brands of high-end cookware, is also safe because it doesn't scratch as easily as cheaper brands and is nonreactive to highly acidic foods such as tomatoes and citrus products. At least you needn't worry that using aluminum products will increase your chances of getting Alzheimer's disease.

In the 1960s, researchers announced that elevated levels of the element were found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. But since then the link between the two has been repeatedly disproved. "Aluminum is the Elvis Presley of Alzheimer's," says Dr. David Knopman, an M.D. in the Neurology Department and Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "For some reason the idea that they are related just won't die." I'm sure I'm not the only cook who is delighted to bury that connection for good.

Now that I don't have to worry that my cookware is harming my family, I can focus on expanding my children's dinner repertoire past roast chicken and mashed potatoes.


Elizabeth Larsen is a Minneapolis-based writer.

On The Web: See the Environmental Working Group's site at www.ewg.org; the EPA's fact sheet on PFOA at www.epagov/opptintr/pfoa/pfoafcts.pdf; and DuPont's site at www.teflon.com.


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