Opinion » Antidote

Polly Wants A Gas Mask

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OK, here's our argument: I told her I didn't want to eat food from the Silverstone pan anymore because I thought it was dangerous (I even told her I'd clean the regular pan). She doesn't want to give up her non-stick because the set was a wedding gift and she likes it. We each went online and found plenty of articles to back up our side. Impasse. She threatened to stop reading you if you say she's wrong, but fear not, I'm loyal enough to read it to her out loud.

—Patrick and Lisa

I still wince every time someone mentions non-stick pans. Try as I might, I can't quite repress the boyhood memory of reaching for metal spatula to flip my grilled cheese sandwich and getting taken down by a Buccaneers' linebacker that turned out to be my mom. Couldn't she have used a slipper to the head like other mothers?

Today's Silverstone pan is more durable than my mom's, simply because it is coated with multiple layers of the material Teflon. Not just used for cookware, Teflon is also applied as an electrical and chemical insulator, a lubricant for bearings and gears, and even a coating for some types of bullets—and who among us hasn't complained of sticky bullets? The two concerns that have sparked the danger debate are distinct and separate: the first is the use of perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA) in the manufacture of the material, and the second are the toxic substances released when Teflon is heated.

PFOA is an industrial chemical required to polymerize, or link together, the molecules that form the exceedingly slippery coating. The chemical is also used heavily in consumer materials like rugs, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes and Chinese take-out containers. Recently, an Environmental Protection Agency panel described PFOA as a "likely human carcinogen." Now, studies have found PFOA in the blood of at least 90 percent of all Americans and up to 95 percent of children. What's worse, the chemical lasts indefinitely in both our bodies and the environment, never degrading. Heck, even dioxin eventually breaks down.

So one would think DuPont would be fairly careful with PFOA, right? Apparently not. In 2004 DuPont settled a lawsuit and paid fines up to $300 million for contaminating the drinking water near a manufacturing facility in West Virginia. Last year, they paid more than $16 million in fines to the EPA for failing to report possible health risks. Now they proudly state they've reduced emissions by 98 percent. If you're dumping chemicals in the river, then you're caught and forced to stop, you, too, could be proud of reducing emissions by 98 percent. Spin like that makes Karl Rove's lawyer look like an amateur.

The other half of this toxic twosome concerns fumes released by overheated Teflon. There is no dispute that the non-stick breaks down at high temperatures and releases nasty gases. These fumes can sicken humans and will kill pet birds in nothing flat. According to the University of Missouri, shatterproof light bulbs coated with Teflon were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of chickens at a single farm. In humans, exposure causes polymer fume flu, with symptoms resembling influenza, but having unknown long-term effects.

The only disagreement regards at exactly what temperature Teflon breaks down; DuPont asserts 660 degrees, while independent scientists at the Environmental Working Group say it's only 325. Despite warnings and packaging that caution against overheating this cookware, most kitchen rookies I know think the stove has two settings: blast furnace and off. The marketplace seems heedless as well: non-stick George Foreman Grills preheat up to 450 degrees and Teflon coated woks (for high temperature stir-fry) are still widely sold.

So what to do? Cast iron, when seasoned properly, is naturally non-stick and can now be purchased pre-seasoned or coated with porcelain enamel. Stainless steel pans brown food better, though they are harder to clean. I wouldn't necessarily discard your Silverstone, but recommend saving it for the occasional quick cooking fish or the perfect crepe. And, if you know what's good for you, you'll keep one eye open for my mom.

Tradition was, taking a canary into a coal mine would warn the miners of unsafe air when the bird fell over dead. I figure that applies to my kitchen as well. Reportedly, DuPont's Web site used to proclaim that "Teflon is really everywhere," but that tagline has since disappeared. It was probably wise to remove that; last month, a $5 billion class-action lawsuit was filed representing clients in 13 states. For a company specializing in non-stick, litigation sure seems to cling pretty tight.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send deformed crepes and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).