Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Tuesday Toxin Talk

I'm currently reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith (Executive Director of Environmental Defence) and Bruce Lourie (President of the Ivey Foundation). The book examines the toxins that leach out of commonplace items in our homes and workplaces and wind up in our bodies. Smith and Lourie experiment on themselves, purposely exposing themselves to everyday products over a four-day period, and use the results to raise awareness about the dangers that surround us. I'd like to use this space every few Tuesdays to share some of this vital information with you. For more in-depth coverage, please buy the book!


Let's talk about Teflon.

We're all familiar with Teflon and other PFCs (perfluorinated compounds) due to their popularity in the kitchen: they keep food from sticking to frying pans. I suspect many of you know that we spray these chemicals onto rugs, sofas, and clothing as a stain repellent. But did you know they also coat pizza boxes, popcorn bags, and dental floss? Were you aware that PFCs are used to make bullets and computer mice? Raise your hand if you knew these compounds are put into cosmetics! We use this stuff in so many different applications that 98% of Americans carry PFCs in their blood. Scary stuff.

What makes Teflon so bad? Its main ingredient, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), is a toxin thought to cause birth defects, developmental problems, hormone disruption, and high cholesterol. Ironically, Teflon's durability, slipperiness, and resistance to breakdown make it simultaneously commercially desirable and environmentally disastrous, not to mention damaging to human health. We can't get rid of it - neither inside nor outside of our bodies - and it can take centuries for the molecules to break down on their own. In other words, even if we stopped using PFOAs today, our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc., would still suffer the associated health effects. But we don't need to look to the future to see problems: in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where DuPont manufactures Teflon, residents have nearly six times as much PFOA in their blood as the average American.

Ready to ditch your Teflon pan? Bruce Lourie has some tips:

  • Invest in a good frying pan with a solid base so it can heat quickly and evenly and retain heat at a constant temperature. The three basic categories are cast iron, stainless steel, and enamel-coated cast iron (my personal favourite).
  • Heat the pan to the correct temperature before placing any food into it.
  • Coat the entire surface of the pan with oil.
  • Use a metal spatula. Plastic ones tend to shovel, whereas metal ones actually lift food off of the pan's surface.

There is some good news: DuPont will be phasing out the manufacturing, use, and purchasing of PFOA by 2015, and 3M, the maker of Scotchguard, has already voluntarily removed PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonate) - another persistent, bioaccumulating toxin - from its products.

Over the past year, I've noticed some scratches in my non-stick pan but have been ignoring them because the skillet is still doing its job well. But now I'm not so sure I can keep using it. What about you? Will you make the switch to a healthier, environmentally-friendlier pan, or is this not that big of a deal?

Photo credits: chemical structure of PFOA; non-stick pan.


  1. You know, I've been planning on tossing my non-stick frying pan in favour of 2 replacement units... a good stainless steel one, and a cast iron one. I think this may be the little push I needed to say goodbye to the old and in with the new (ironically, tossing the newer technology in favour of much older ones!).

    Also, I would comment that "coating the bottom of the pan with oil" requires a LOT less oil than people think... a tablespoon will generously coat the bottom of a 12-13 inch pan!

  2. So true! We find ourselves going back to older methods in an attempt to live a greener, healthier life. From cast iron pans to hanging up laundry on a line to baking bread by hand, simpler is better for us and for the planet.

    Thanks for the tip about the oil.

  3. It is a big deal! I have already switched over to mostly stainless steel pots and pans. Time to get rid of those Teflon pots and pans (and kitchen utensils) with scratches. There are so many safer alternatives out there. Thank you for providing such an in depth coverage of the hazards of Teflon.

  4. Good for you for making the switch already, Lori! I think one of the perks that comes with switching to stainless steel and cast iron cookware is that you can get rid of plastic spatulas, too, which are only necessary if you use non-stick pans! I hate looking at how much the plastic has worn down - I've been eating a petroleum product with my food. Ick.

  5. i am really freaked out about teflon pans- i phased out almost all of mine out a little under a year ago. I have pet birds and the off-gassing can actually kill them. it seems like a bad sign.

    sadly i can't get rid of teflon pans entirely, as my roommates all still use them.

    i love my seasoned cast iron skillet, all clad stainless pans, and enameled dutch oven enough that I totally don't miss the low quality non-stick pans.

  6. Yes, I read about the off-gassing issue, and it's ironic that pet birds are like canaries in a coal mine, but we aren't leaving the mine!?

    Jealous of your enamel-coated dutch oven. I can't use my cast iron one for anything with tomatoes.

  7. We phased out our teflon ages ago, and have gotten so accustomed to the stainless steel we can't remember why we thought it would be difficult. We also switched from the non-stick muffin and bread bans, although the old ones are still in the cupboard because I can't bear to throw them into the landfill. Oh, and we are trying out drTung's non-teflon floss: so far, so good.

  8. Oh no, I completely forgot about my non-stick muffin pan! It will be a little sad to say goodbye to that one.

    I'll have to ask for Dr. Tung's floss in my local health food store!

  9. They have some extremely good silicon muffin pans... perhaps a worthwhile alternative?

  10. Yes! Silicone is great for cook- and bakeware. That stuff can withstand extreme heat, and it's totally non-toxic. Definitely a good replacement for non-stick muffin pans!