Tl;dr: No. Some people are reluctant to use nonstick cookware because they think it can transfer carcinogens into their food, but it ain’t so. It’s safe to cook with as long as you avoid very high temperatures.
PTFE (aka polytetrafluoroethylene) is the stuff that gives pans its nonstickiness. Teflon is a kind of PTFE made by DuPont. Because Teflon is proprietary, we don’t really know what percentage of nonstick pans use it, but it’s “a significant player in the PTFE nonstick industry,” according to Hugh Rushing, executive vice president of the Cookware Manufacturers Association. There are many other brands of PTFE-based nonstick coatings as well.
Eating food that’s cooked on PTFE will not hurt you. Polyfluoroalkyl polymers, the family that PTFE belongs to, are really stable and do not like to react with anything (which is part of the reason they work so well as nonstick coatings). So if some PTFE came off of the pan and into your food, it would pass through you without doing a thing.
But very high temperatures are something you should avoid with your PTFE nonstick pans. PTFE is stable up to about 500 degrees Fahrenheit, which, honestly, is way hotter than you need to cook just about anything, because the smoke point of many oils and butter is around 350 degrees. When PTFE gets hotter, somewhere at about 600 degrees, it starts to break down and send polyfluoroalkyl compounds and its cousins shooting into the air. Inhaling this crap can lead to polymer fume fever, which has flulike symptoms with coughing and chest tightness. This is pretty rare in humans. However, birds’ respiratory systems are much more delicate than ours, and they’re more susceptible to fumes in the air. As such, overheating a PTFE nonstick pan can kill a nearby bird. So if you have any birdie friends at home, you might want to keep them out of the kitchen.
There is another compound associated with nonstick cookware, called PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid. In the past, companies used PFOA to make the PTFE polymer. PFOA is a carcinogen and has been in the news lately because it’s a persistent environmental pollutant and can cause birth defects in people who drink contaminated water. It’s really quite nasty, to put it mildly. What’s more, recently the EPA issued a health advisory about PFOA. Water companies in some places around the US have found PFOA levels in their drinking water many, many times the EPA’s new limits of 70 parts per million, causing some cities to tell people not to drink the water. Fortunately, PFOA is relatively easy to remove from water with a granulated activated-charcoal filter (pdf), such as this one.
I guess the good news, if there really is any, is that the EPA is just finishing up a 10-year program to get companies to phase out PFOA. DuPont stopped using the compound to make PTFE in early 2012, and all other companies that make PTFE are on that EPA list to get rid of PFOA. Generally, the companies are substituting shorter-chain fluoroalkyl compounds because it seems that they don’t accumulate in the environment like the long-chain ones, such as PFOA, do. Some scientists don’t agree with this and are calling for knocking all poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances out of practice. Only time will tell what happens there. But even if you have an older PTFE nonstick pan, the amount of PFOA that might come out is vanishingly small and is not a danger. As Joe Schwarcz pointed out in the article about nonstick pans, there’s a greater danger from burning food that can create carcinogens.
There is an alternative to PTFE nonstick cookware that’s touted as being “greener,” but that depends on your definition of “green.” Some people say sol-gel, or ceramiclike coated pans don’t last as long as PTFE nonstick pans, so you have to replace them more often. These don’t use polyfluoroalkyl polymers, but instead are silicon-based coatings. (The name sol-gel comes from “solution-gel.”) I haven’t been able to unearth too much about exactly how they’re made, so we don’t know how green it is to make these things. True, they don’t use any polyfluoroalkyl compounds. But as I pointed out above, nobody uses PFOA to make nonstick pans anymore, and the new, smaller polyfluorinated polymers don’t stick around as long in the environment, although we still don’t know how these will affect the environment in the long term. So ceramiclike nonstick pans? Not really any greener than PTFE pans. If you want a green nonstick pan, you might have to settle for one that’s actually, physically green. If you want a more environmentally friendly pan, there’s always the iron skillet—you do have to season it, but it’ll last you a lifetime (or longer) and you can recoat it to make it nonstick over and over.
So to sum up: PTFE cookware is perfectly safe to cook with, but try not to overheat it, especially if you have pet birds. Ceramic-coated pans are not necessarily greener, because you have to replace them more often. And to keep everybody safe, don’t burn your food in any kind of pan.
When a source of light moves toward you, its waves are compressed and pushed to a higher energy. We can’t always see this blue shift, but it’s there.
In the space of Internet science, there’s a lot of bad information floating around. In this biweekly column, Leigh Krietsch Boerner, chemistry PhD and science editor of The Sweethome, will tell you what you need to know on the science of home products, and what’s all around you.
(Top photo by Michael Hession, with illustration by Elizabeth Brown.)