13 Reasons to Ditch Your Favorite Pots & Pans

Nonstick, water-, and stain-repellent chemicals make life easier. But are they worth it, considering the risks?

December 17, 2013


There's no cook in America who will argue this fact: Nonstick pots and pans make life easier. The breakthrough class of chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) means no more scrubbing overdone eggs stuck to the bottom of cookware after Sunday-morning breakfast. Aside from that perk, nonstick chemicals of this type, such as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, also make things like boots and raincoats water repellent, and they create a stain-repelling barrier on things like carpeting and couches. Heck, nonstick chemicals even keep grease from seeping through microwave popcorn bags and onto our laps during movie time!


Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. These PFCs, some of which are ingredients in Gore-Tex and Teflon, are persistent and don't go away, turning up later on in places like drinking water, household dust, and even umbilical cord blood! While some PFC nonstick chemicals like perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) were phased out in 2000, others, like PFOA, are still on the market, although they're supposed to be phased out by 2015. But all that doesn't matter, since these harmful chemicals can lurk inside of your body for five to eight years! Better to keep them out in the first place! The science is stacking up, and it doesn't look good for nonstick chemicals.

Here's why you may want to give PFOA and other nonstick chemicals the boot!

Reason #1: At high levels, nonstick chemicals promote cancer.
Found in the blood of 98 percent of Americans, PFOA (also called C8) levels vary among the population. It's becoming increasingly clear, though, that people living near nonstick-chemical production sites face major health risks. For instance, after it contaminated a community's groundwater with PFOA over several decades, a DuPont PFOA production plant was involved in a lawsuit that prompted a study of people living in that area near the Ohio–West Virginia border. Looking at 55 different health ailments, scientists concluded that PFOA is likely linked to a higher risk of kidney, thyroid, and testicular cancer, among other health problems.

Reason #2: They make it harder to focus.
Looking at highly exposed children, researchers found those exposed to drinking water contaminated with nonstick chemicals had a significantly higher risk of ADHD and higher need to be taking ADHD medication. In another study, scientists looking at 12- to 15-year-olds found those with the highest levels of certain nonstick chemicals in the blood faced a much higher risk of being diagnosed with ADHD.

Reason #3: They throw kids' lipids into a tizzy.
Even if you're cooking healthy foods in those nonstick pots and pans, the chemical coating could be promoting unhealthy cholesterol levels in kids as a result of the exposure. A 2010 study appearing in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found 12- to 19-year-olds exposed to PFOA-contaminated drinking water were more likely to suffer higher LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels. Interestingly, the dose didn't make the poison: Those with lower exposures had larger increases in cholesterol. Increasingly, scientists are noting that even tiny exposures can cause lifelong changes in healthy functioning.

Reason #4: They're associated with out-of-control cholesterol in adults, too.
While younger people are often more susceptible to chemical exposure, a study in Environmental Health Perspectives found adults also suffered higher cholesterol levels when they had more nonstick chemicals circulating in their bodies. These chemicals are different from many other persistant organic pollutants, which are stored primarily in fat tissue. Nonstick chemicals instead cling to proteins in the liver and blood.

Reason #5: They throw off your thyroid.
Your thyroid gland is known as a master regulator, playing important roles in development. Unfortunately, thyroid disease is on the rise, and nonstick coatings often found in cookware, carpeting, and even fast-food wrappers and microwavable bags could be playing a role in fueling the disease. United Kingdom researchers looked at nearly 4,000 adults and found that after adjusting for other factors that could impact thyroid health, women with the highest PFOA levels were more than twice as likely to be under treatment for thyroid disease.

Reason #6: It's linked to pregnancy problems.
In 2009, University of California–Los Angeles researchers found that women with the highest PFOA blood levels were much more likely to have trouble getting pregnant. In fact, their risk of infertility—not getting pregnant in 12 months of trying—increased 60 to 154 percent. In addition, boys born to mothers with higher levels of nonstick chemicals in their blood grow up to have poorer sperm quality featuring lower sperm counts, according to the 2013 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Reason #7: They annihilate your arteries.
It's not just the wrong fats that can harm your heart health; chemicals also play a role. Nonstick chemicals are no exception. A 2012 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine was the first of its kind to find that PFOA affect cardiovascular and peripheral artery disease. Of the 1,200 adults tested, those with the highest PFOA levels were twice as likely to have cardiovascular disease and 78 percent more likely to suffer from peripheral artery disease compared to people with the lowest PFOA levels. (Researchers adjusted for other things that could impact heart health.)

Reason # 8: They make you fat.
Here's a scary finding: There's something about nonstick chemicals that can affect future generations! Danish researchers measured PFOA levels in pregnant women, and then took body-weight measurements of their children 20 years later. Compared to the daughters of mothers with the lowest PFOA levels during pregnancy, daughters of moms with the highest levels were about three times more likely to be overweight in early adulthood. They also faced a higher risk of abnormally high insulin levels. (Nonstick chemicals are one of 8 crazy obesogens!)

Reason #9: They damage your liver cells.
We know PFOA likes to hang out in your liver, so in 2012, researchers combed through data from 47,000 adults and found those with higher nonstick chemical levels also had higher concentrations of alanine transaminase, a marker for liver cell damage.

Reason #10: They hamper your immunity.
Nonstick chemicals like PFOA also damage your immune system, resulting in abnormally flat-footed immune response after vaccination. A 2012 study found that exposure to nonstick chemicals like PFOA late in the pregnancy resulted in children with much lower antibody response than what's ideal after diphtheria and tetanus vaccinations. In other words, nonstick chemicals damage the immune system in a way that makes important vaccines less effective. In fact, when children were exposed to higher levels of nonstick chemicals, they were 2.3 and 4.2 times higher odds of falling below the protective levels for tetanus and diphtheria antibodies, respectively.

Reason #11: They could spark arthritis.
Nonstick causes pain, too. Women with higher levels of hormone-disrupting nonstick chemicals like PFOA in their blood were more likely to have arthritis. Although scientists aren't exactly sure of how nonstick chemicals may cause osteoarthritis, they have a hunch. Experimental findings suggest they have the potential to alter the delicate balance of our natural hormones involved with inflammation, cartilage repair, and other factors related to the disease, according to one researcher.

Reason #12: They lead to smaller babies.
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health scientists discovered that exposure to PFOA and another nonstick chemicals in the womb lead to lower weight and head circumference at birth, according to an analysis of nearly 300 umbilical cord samples. The full impact is not known, but this study suggests the widely used nonstick chemicals—at low doses—could impact fetal growth.

Reason #13: They could kill your pet bird.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, pet birds are extra sensitive to what's in the air. And while any type of cookware with overheated oil could throw off potentially lethal pollution, Teflon and other nonstick cookware are potent pet-bird killers if overheated. If you have a pet bird, skip the nonstick, invest in a high-quality stove vent, and don't cook with your bird in the room.

Here's how to cut back on nonstick chemical exposure:

• Trade in nonstick cookware for glass, enamel, stainless steel, or Made in the USA cast iron. A good time to do this? When you start noticing nicks and scratches in your nonstick cookware.

• Avoid fast food—the wrappers often contain grease-resistant nonstick chemicals. Grease- and water-resistant food packaging is often treated with polyfluoroalkyl phosphate surfactants that convert into PFOA, a carcinogen in lab animal tests.

• Avoid microwavable popcorn, which usually also features nonstick chemicals in the lining of the bag. Instead, make homemade popcorn on the stovetop, try this homemade microwave popcorn trick, or choose Quinn popcorn, whose bags don't use toxic nonstick chemicals.

• Avoid carpet and upholstered furniture with stain-repellent finishes.

• If your water contains nonstick chemicals, use a granular activated carbon filter to remove most of them.

• For safer outdoors wear, look for jackets treated with polyurethane, not nonstick chemicals. Wax-coated clothing is also an option.

• Look for boots made of real rubber.