Scientists Say Avoid Nonstick, Greaseproof, or Waterproof Kitchen Products | Civil Eats

Scientists Say Avoid Nonstick, Greaseproof, or Waterproof Kitchen Products

With the Madrid Statement, more than 200 scientists worldwide express concern about highly fluorinated chemicals.

Chances are high that you or someone in your family has at least one piece of nonstick cookware in the kitchen. And if you eat take-out food, you’ve probably encountered packaging treated to resist grease, oil, and moisture. What this means is that it’s extremely likely that highly fluorinated chemicals—which are specially engineered to create these durable coatings—are part of your everyday life.

These chemicals are used in fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, in baked goods packaging, hamburger clamshells, and disposable paper plates. And as durable as these compounds are, under some circumstances, they can end up in food. In fact, these chemicals have been found in meat, fish, dairy, and produce.

“There are over 3,000 highly fluorinated chemicals,” says Simona Balan, Green Science Policy Institute senior scientist. “The quality they all share is that they are all incredibly persistent and will stay in the environment for as long as thousands of years.”

In addition to finding these extremely persistent, man-made chemicals in food, scientists have also found them in people—including children—all around the world. And there is a large and growing body of evidence linking this class of chemicals to a spectrum of health problems. These include certain cancers, as well as impacts on development, on the immune and neurological systems, and on hormones.

Now a group of more than 200 scientists from 38 countries have come together to express their concern about the ongoing and widespread use of these chemicals and to call for policies that would limit their production and use—and encourage development of alternatives. These scientists have signed on to what’s being called the Madrid Statement, published today in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP).

According to a report also released today by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) testing of these compounds used in food packaging and cookware has failed to fully determine how the chemicals may break down or what their long-term health effects may be. EWG also criticized FDA and manufacturers for lack of transparency about the safety of these substances, which also appear in waterproof and stain-resistant clothing and in some cosmetics.

Figuring out exactly where these chemicals are being used isn’t easy. For one, there are lots of them. Some are what are called “long-chain” and some “short-chain,” a distinction that’s become important to discussions about environmental and health effects, and how these chemicals are regulated. More than 10 years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began working with chemical manufacturers to voluntarily phase-out the “long chain” highly fluorinated compounds, which are known to be particularly persistent in the human body and whose adverse environmental and health effects have been well documented.

In response, manufacturers began to substitute “short-chain” compounds. According to the FluoroCouncil, these provide “the benefits” of the “long-chain” compounds, but as the group’s executive director Jessica Bowman said in a statement, “are not expected to be harmful to human health or the environment.” The FluoroCouncil objects to the way the Madrid Statement has grouped all highly fluorinated chemicals together—chemicals it says are an “essential technology for many aspects of modern life”—and does not focus solely on the “long-chain” compounds.

But, “some of the longer ones break down” into the even longer lasting forms of the chemicals, explains Linda Birnbaum, director of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program. While the shorter compounds “don’t persist in people” the same way the longer ones do, she adds, “they do persist in the environment.”

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Their presence in the environment matters because, “We get about half our exposure directly from products and about half through the environment, which includes water, air and food,” says Balan.

There’s also a lack of good substitutes for these chemicals as they’re currently used. As has happened with flame retardants and bisphenol A (BPA), it turns out that highly fluorinated chemicals that have been identified as hazardous have been replaced with others that are similarly problematic. And when it comes to cookware and food packaging, there are no labeling requirements for these coatings. That is something the Madrid Statement calls for, however.

Debbie Raphael, director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, says her city signed on to the Madrid Statement, because it “sees itself in the role of an educator.” The department hopes to help consumers understand what they’re buying. Through its environmentally preferable purchasing program, the city can also help make safer products more widely available, she explains. “We definitely see a role for local government in making healthy choices,” says Raphael.

Chemical manufacturers maintain that the highly fluorinated chemicals are safe—and they are indeed approved for food contact use by the FDA. The FluoroCouncil says they are needed to preserve “the integrity of food packaging,” to help extend food shelf life and reduce the overall amount of plastic packaging. Nonstick cookware, says the FluoroCouncil, allows “for healthier cooking.”

But as Arlene Blum, Green Policy Science Institute executive director and Madrid Statement author, puts it: “Before adding any fluorinated chemicals to consumer products we should ask first whether we really need them. And if they are indeed necessary, can the same function be achieved with a safer solution?”

We really need to ask another question as well, says Raphael. “If consumers knew that in order to have nonstick, it meant they would be using a toxic chemical that ending up throughout the environment and that accumulates in animals and humans, they might ask: Is it worth it?”

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Given all the questions and the evidence to date, long-time environmental health advocate and U.S. Right to Know co-founder Stacy Malkan recommends reducing the use of these chemicals across the board and getting rid of the nonstick cookware. “The scientific community is saying these chemicals are too risky to use and companies should be taking this very seriously,” she says.

The take away for consumers? While the chemicals’ manufacturers argue that that not all these chemicals are equally hazardous, the Madrid Statement says, when it comes to nonstick cookware and greasy-food packaging: Avoid it.

Elizabeth Grossman was a senior reporter for Civil Eats from 2014 to 2017, where she focused on environmental and science issues. She is the author of Chasing Molecules, High Tech Trash, Watershed and other books. Her work appeared in a variety of publications, including National Geographic News, The Guardian, The Intercept, Scientific American, Environmental Health Perspectives, Yale e360, Ensia, High Country News, The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, and Mother Jones. She passed away in July 2017, leaving behind a legacy of dedication to her mission of journalism that supports and protects people and the planet. Read more >

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  1. Jane Peters
    Yeah they're bad. Avoid at all costs. Use cast iron instead.
  2. Marie
    Are there any brands or types or products that have been found to be completely safe of these compounds? Are these compounds in ceramic cookware? I'd love to switch out my non-stick but is the only safe alternative cast iron?
  3. Sky Masterson
    is 200 a consensus, because to do real science we need a consensus.
  4. Joel
    This was "blink" moment for me 10 years ago that allowed me to dump all my nonstick cookware into the trash

    “If consumers knew that in order to have nonstick, it meant they would be using a toxic chemical that ends up throughout the environment and that accumulates in animals and humans, they might ask: Is it worth it?”

    I never asked that because further discussion is moot. I simply placed them all in the trash, including a large, expensive ‘non-stick' wok. In particular, I remember the PR literature saying that the coating is only dangerous when heated above 500°, as if it's perfectly inert at 495° and all of a sudden transmogrifies from benign to lethal in 5 more degrees! Whole industries depend for their survival on stupidity.
  5. Franco santostefano
    Are ceramic coated cookware products also toxic ?
  6. June Rose Quinn
    I could quite easily live without non stick pans, ban them now!
  7. Rosa Harris
    What kind of fry pan can i use which wont stick, easy to use and not harmful?
  8. Martha smith
    Too little too late! Our advancement will be our demise. Today it's non stick coating...tomorrow it'll be the air we breathe and the water we drink, the house we live in, and the material of our rugs and clothing. It's always something! One soda pop and a bagel will toxify my system and have me feeling more lousy than that non stick scrambled egg. So...smarty pans ;) how does one properly and safely dispose of the oh so dangerous non stick product worldwide? China? Any harmful elements leeching from heated aluminum, cast iron, stainless steel, your I phone or computer components?
  9. Martha smith
    Putting your non stick coated pots n pans in the trash is not the answer!! How long before all of that toxic material bio degrades? Hello...it's still here...on Earth...along with all of the other man made toxins!!
  10. France M Kalaola
    You did not mention which kinds of cookware we should be using and you have already mentioned you really don't have safe suggestions for foods and other items. I heard about this some time ago but nothing again till now about why it's so dangerous. At the same time you have not helped the consumer with viable suggestions to make healthy changes.
  11. Elizabeth Grossman
    The science behind the Madrid Statement suggests that using cookware w/out nonstick coatings is preferable. Exactly what's in each piece of cookware called "nonstick" is almost impossible for a consumer to determine so if concerned, based on this science, these scientists suggest using something that doesn't make this claim. As for food packaging & wrapping, unfortunately that's also hard for a consumer to figure out as some of this packaging is coated, some is not. So if concerned, best option is minimize or eliminate use of these disposables. If you work for a business or organization that purchases any of these items, ask your suppliers if there are alternatives to those w/coatings. That's what San Francisco plans to do.

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