For the past 5 years, Jan. 1, 2011, was trumpeted as an important day for nonstick cookware and bakeware in the United States. That would be the date by which eight major U.S. chemical companies would voluntarily reduce their use of PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) by 95 percent.
PFOA, which has been declared to be a “likely human carcinogen” by Environmental Protection Agency, has been used for decades in the manufacture of PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), which is the plastic substance that gives almost all nonstick cookware and bakeware their slippery surface. EPA is asking the eight companies to completely phase out their use of PFOA by 2015.
So, shouldn’t consumers be celebrating Jan. 1 as a milestone on the road to a safer and healthier nonstick-cooking future? Not so fast.
First, EPA’s PFOA Stewardship Program is voluntary and doesn’t apply to China, where 30 percent of the cookware and bakeware that is sold in the United States is manufactured.
Hotter Than Expected
Cookware that has an aluminum base accounted for approximately 75 percent of all cookware that was sold in the United States in 2009 (the latest data available), according to Cookware Manufacturers Association (CMA). More than 90 percent of that cookware was nonstick-coated; roughly 95 percent of that 90 percent contained PTFE, says Hugh Rushing, who is executive vice president of CMA. So, despite EPA’s wishes, there’s still a lot of potentially toxic polyfluoromer that’s on the market.
Second, no agency has the authority to approve or monitor the substances that are used to make nonstick coatings. This means that no company is obligated to reveal the ingredients that are in its coatings. So when EPA said in late 2009 that the eight major chemical companies were “on track” to achieve their PFOA reductions, EPA basically was taking the companies at their word.
The complex chemical formulations that are used to make nonstick products are rapidly evolving, says Olga Naidenko, who is a senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, which specializes in environmental and toxic-chemical research. “But regulation has not caught on, and transparency has not caught on,” she says. So consumers still could be at risk.
Third, in the past 4 years, six major chemical companies have developed PTFE from perfluoroalkyls, which the manufacturers claim are less toxic than is PFOA.
“[PFOA] is being replaced by other chemicals in the perfluoroalkyl family that we don’t know anything about,” says Stephanie Frisbee, who is a researcher at West Virginia University Department of Community Medicine and co-author of a 2010 report that found higher cholesterol levels in children who were exposed to PFOA.
Companies imply that their newest nonstick products are safe to use at 500 degrees Fahrenheit and higher, and they might be right. But until they tell us what ingredients make up their nonstick cookware and bakeware, we don’t know for sure.
EASY BEING GREEN? As manufacturers scrambled to find nonstick alternatives to PFOA and PTFE, at least 12 companies in the past 4 years have introduced products that have so-called eco-coatings. These pots and pans have ceramic-, silicone- or even sand-based (rather than petroleum-based) nonstick surfaces. You can expect to pay 25 percent to 30 percent more for a 10-piece set of cookware that has one of these new surfaces, compared with a traditionally coated 10-piece set that has the same construction.
The problem is that even though companies claim on their packaging that eco-coatings are more “green” and emit fewer greenhouse gases than do PTFE coatings, they still don’t tell you what’s in them. So, as with other nonstick-coated products, it’s impossible for anyone to know whether eco-coatings really are natural or better for you.